Critical Thinking – Recognising Dodgy Arguments

stylised silhouette heads, upper head looking displeased listening to devil, lower head looking pleased listening to angel

Critical Thinking is a set of six short, animated videos by Australian foresight agency Bridge8, which created the series for technyou, an emerging technologies public information resource funded by the Australian Government.

Originally designed as a teaching resource for secondary school students, this visually appealing series will be useful to change agents both personally, and in any teaching, coaching or training they may do.

The animations explain key concepts in clear and easily understandable ways (‘logic is a way to combine ideas to come to a conclusion. It’s like maths only it can deal with more than numbers’), with affectionate touches of humour.

Associated transcripts are also available for each video, and a colourful Recognising Dodgy Arguments companion guide, available as postcard-sized or  as an extended version (both pdf) which can be downloaded.

Part 1: A Valuable Argument

Part 1 is about how the human brain takes shortcuts to help us deal with the complexity in our world. But there are times when we need to be careful of letting our ‘shortcuts’ and our biases substitute for deeper thinking. Logic is a tool for helping our thinking processes in order to identify ideas that may be helpful.

Logic is a useful way to combine established ideas to support the acceptance of a new idea. Looking for logic in an argument can help you decide whether you should agree with somebody, or wait for more information.

Transcript (pdf)


Part 2: Broken Logic

Part 2 is about the structure of a logical argument, and how to distinguish between a logical argument and a logical fallacy. It uses the structure of a maths equation to explain premises (something we already know or agree upon) and conclusions that can be drawn from combinations of premises.

It’s easy to mistake a logical fallacy for the real deal if you’re not careful. People do it all the time. Sometimes by accident and sometimes to fool you. Knowing the structure of a logical argument is important.

Transcript (pdf)


Part 3: The Man Who Was Made of Straw

Part 3 is about recognising a ‘straw-man’ – a misleading characterisation of an argument – created either by those opposing you, or even unwittingly made by yourself. Refuting a straw man argument means you have not, in fact, defended your argument, but been drawn into defeating something else altogether.

Logic is built up of ideas called premises. Even if they seem logical, it’s important to pay attention to those premises to make sure that they’re not made of straw.

Transcript (pdf)


Part 4: Getting Personal

Part 4 is about making the distinction between the ‘messenger’ and ‘the message, and not confusing how you feel about someone with whether you trust what they have to say.

It’s hard to listen to people we don’t like, and difficult to disagree with those that we trust and admire. But there’s a difference between who a person is and what they’re saying.

Transcript (pdf)


Part 5: The Gambler’s Fallacy

This part is about how we assume that the probability of something happening is conditioned by past results.

Just because one thing follows another, even if it happens a few times, does not necessarily mean that they’re linked. There could be other factors, or it could simply be coincidence.

Transcript (pdf)


Part 6: A Precautionary Tale

This part is about the precautionary principle, and how although avoiding action until aware of adverse consequences is sensible, it is impossible to remove all risks associated with every action.

…waiting for irrefutable data, which is logically impossible, is a bad way to make decisions…Asking about risks is sensible. But demanding one hundred percent safety stops technology from evolving.

Transcript (pdf)


Note: while I appreciates the point of the argument in the last clip – that irrefutable data and a 100% guarantee of safety is logically impossible – we owe it to ourselves and all life to take a ‘mission critical’ approach to our planet as we do with aircraft or any other technology. As ex-RAAF and Boeing engineer Andrew ‘Wilf’ Wilford put it:

If we consider our entire planet as a safety and mission critical system, how sophisticated should risk management approaches be for such important issues as accelerating climate instability, energy security, ecosystem vulnerability, and resource depletion, among other issues?  Wouldn’t it make sense to apply similar precautions?

At the core of effective risk management is the realization that just because something hasn’t happened before, it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in the future. So, if the consequences of failure (i.e. in runaway climate change) are catastrophic, then it’s appropriate to rapidly and effectively intervene to reduce the likelihood of such an outcome.

Just as not being 100% certain of safety is not a reason to ground all aircraft, the lack of irrefutable data is not  a sufficient reason to abandon the precautionary principle – a central tenet of sustainability – which is about making decisions that do not pose a threat to people and nature, even if that means we forego some opportunities.

Have you ever been in the middle of a debate and realised that you’ve been sidetracked by faulty logic or a straw man? 

How can we decide whether the precautionary principle should be invoked, given that it is logically impossible to have 100% certainty?

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Surviving Personal Attacks – A Guide for Change Agents

Bugs and Daffy from 'Rabbit Season/Duck Season' skit, with sign on tree altered to read 'Messenger Season'

Image credit: Up The Hammers/Warner Bros

By definition, change agents are ‘the messenger’ – and one thing change agents can be certain of is that as messengers, shots will be fired at them.

‘Shooting the messenger’ is considered a subdivision of an ad hominem attack, which is:

…insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument.

A lay term for ‘ad hominem‘ is ‘playing the man and not the ball’, an expression from various codes of football, where a player targets the body of the player with no intention of attempting to tackle to take possession of the ball.

It’s against the rules because players are supposed to be focused on the ball (the issue or debate in question), not taking out an opposing player (engaging in character assassination or ridicule intended to undermine an opponent’s position).

How should a change agent manage their response to messenger-shooting and/or an ad hominem attack?

Firstly, be aware of the nature of the response you receive. Even if you have become the target of hostility, be aware that it is your message, not you personally, that the person or group is reacting to. When people attack the person delivering the message instead of debating the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance – or where their view of the world is suddenly interrupted and made uncomfortable by new information or ideas that conflicts with their established understanding and belief system. The reaction is because your message has clashed with an individual or group’s ‘belief grid’, or challenged values they hold dear.

Secondly, manage your own response. Like most human beings, your initial reaction to hostility is unlikely to be rational, as such an attack triggers ‘survival’ mode, bypassing the conscious mind and going straight to the ‘older’ parts of the brain. Physical reactions may include a racing heart, a surge of adrenaline, a flushed face, perhaps even shaking hands or voice. You may feel your temper rising, the need to defend yourself and your argument, or the overwhelming desire to sting the person who has stung you (how dare they!).


First, make sure you listen to what the other person is saying – really listen, as the words they are speaking might not be exactly what they are reacting against, there may be a deeper issue. Reflect back to the person what you have heard for two reasons – to make sure you’ve understood them, and so that they know they have been heard, and that you’ve not been preparing a counter-argument while they’ve been speaking.

Often, a few moments of silence can work wonders to cool an inflamed situation. Pause before answering. Take a slow, deep breath.

Visualise a white light around yourself – allow yourself to be present, and respond, but without internalising hostile energy.

Ask strategic questions. Create effective conversations by being curious without being judgmental. Practice empathy.

small vial with a green potion labelled 'empathy'

Bottle label reads: ‘Empathy is the ability of blurring the line between self and other’

Image credit: Viralmente

Most of all, realise and accept that your role is to take the heat for being the bearer of change. It’s hard – hard when people arc up, hard when they’re attacking positions you yourself hold to be true, very hard when you’re being attacked personally and/or dismissively ‘shot down’, especially when someone has misinterpreted something you said. The most unbelievably frustrating scenario is when people are attacking something you didn’t even say!

Remember – amazing leaders would be found everywhere if it was easy!

Helpful resources Crux has discovered and recommends include:

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Harvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky includes guidance on ‘Anchoring Yourself’, ‘Holding Steady’/’Taking the Heat’ and ‘Controlling the Temperature’; some excerpts below:

When you take ‘personal’ attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action – you make yourself the issue.

Adaptive work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, which present forms of danger to leaders…Learning to take the heat and receive people’s anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership.

Leadership takes the capacity to stomach hostility so that you can stay connected to people…Receiving anger is a sacred task, because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves, and stand by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.

It’s a deep and natural human impulse to seek order and calm, and organizations and communities can only tolerate so much distress before recoiling. Raise the heat enough to that people sit up, pay attention and deal with threats/challenges – no distress means no incentive for change. But lower the temperature when necessary to reduce counterproductive tension.

The book also makes the point that you may also be facing resistance from friends and allies, as well as those opposing you – people who want you to calm things down, not stir them up, because the upheaval has become uncomfortable for them. It also provides useful insights into other tactics often used to neutralise or marginalise those undertaking change work.

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle – Tolle experienced a profound transformation aged 29 when he was on the verge of suicide, and heard himself saying ‘I can no longer live with myself’. This very statement enabled him to wonder ‘who is this self I cannot live with?’ and to begin to separate his egoic self from his true being. A New Earth examines the current collective and individual egoic state of humanity, and how a shift in consciousness is the evolutionary leap we need to make to survive. Here are some selected quotes from Tolle’s chapters on ego, which are highly relevant for the change agent:

Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head – the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it – that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind…

The ego isn’t wrong; its just unconscious. When you observe the ego in yourself, you are beginning to go beyond it. Don’t take the ego too seriously. When you detect egoic behavior in yourself, smile…

Nonreaction to the ego in others is one of the most effective ways…of going beyond ego in yourself…but you can only be in a state of nonreaction if you can recognize someone’s behavior as coming from the ego…when you realize its not personal, there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were…somebody becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Non reaction is not weakness but strength…

All that is require to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. This is why we may also call it Presence.

Please note, this is very much about the role of your own ego in any kind of exchange, as well as that of anyone you are engaging with. In the moment you become the target of an attack, the kind of reaction you may begin to feel manifesting is the ego in ‘damage repair mode’ – Tolle uses the example of road rage, the abuse of other drivers with language and gesture. By definition, the attacks cannot be personal, as you do not know the others involved, but if you are on the receiving end of aggression, you are likely to have an emotional/instinctual reaction before your rational brain has even engaged.

Becoming aware of your reaction – ‘oh, it’s just the ego, going into damage repair mode’ – and being aware that ‘you’ are not your ego, can help you take a step back at a critical time and enable you to offer a considered, compassionate response instead of a kneejerk reaction.

The Lotus Leadership Guide provides a succinct summary of nine essential leadership capacities. They are all important, but perhaps the most critical ones for when the heat is on are:

Being Present means being fully aware and awake in the present moment – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This includes connecting to others, the environment around you and current reality.

Suspension and Letting Go is the ability to actively experience and observe a thought, assumption, judgment, habitual pattern, emotion or sensation like fear, confusion, conflict or desire, and then refraining from immediately reacting or responding to the situation.

Compassion is having unconditional acceptance and kindness toward all the dimensions of oneself and others, regardless of circumstance. Compassion involves the ability to reflect upon oneself and others without judgment, but with recognition and trust that others are doing the best they can in any given situation.

If you have practiced yoga, or if you meditate, you might already be aware of ‘becoming the witness’ – consciously becoming a detached observer of your own thoughts, letting them come, noticing them, letting them go, without judgment or attachment. It is this technique that both Tolle and the Lotus guide are referring to when separating from one’s ego (being aware of one’s own thoughts), and practicing suspension and letting go.

Leadership and change involves being prepared to take some heat. While nothing replaces the baptism of fire of a real situation, investing some effort into creating an ’emotional hazmat suit’ is well worth the time and an effective way of developing your leadership skills.

And with practice, you won’t merely survive ad hominem attacks, you’ll be able to turn a conversation around from what could have been a potentially destructive situation, and instead create a positive, empowering space for everyone involved.

Have you ever been attacked personally and publicly for breaching a taboo, or saying something that went against what appeared to be the general consensus of a group? How did it feel? How did you handle it?

What tactics have you developed to allow yourself to speak out, without internalising or reacting to others’ anger, frustration or fear? 

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Know Your Logical Fallacies

poster of logical fallacies with a short description of each and a picture of the Greek philosophers

Click on image for higher res version – please see the site for instructions on how to print a readable version

Ever found yourself reacting with disbelief – rage, even – to any kind of public debate where there are massive holes in the logic of the arguments?

Even more maddening is when these holes are not pointed out by anyone who is moderating, or others participating, and the debate proceeds based on a flawed basis.

The field of sustainability is no exception – watched a debate on climate change or the carbon tax lately? If we could improve the quality of debate on sustainability issues, and public issues in general, we could cut out all the superfluous, time-wasting diversions faulty logic enables, and get to the core of what we need to resolve.

In previous posts I’ve discussed how logic and rational appeal won’t necessarily change someone’s views on an issue – but where logic is used, it’s important to be able to spot when someone is using a dodgy basis for making a point, and be able to call them out on it.

It’s also crucial that you become aware of any fallacies you yourself may commit, so you can purge them from your communication repertoire!

But how do would-be fallacy-spotters, with little training in rhetoric and reasoning, know what to look for?

Luckily, Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith and Som Meaden have created thou shalt not commit logical fallacies, a clever, well designed and useful site that has condensed the wisdom of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle (and others) into a bite-size form, using easy to understand language.

The trio describe a logical fallacy as:

…usually what has happened when someone is wrong about something. It’s a flaw in reasoning. They’re like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re often very sneakily used by politicians and the media to fool people.

The creators have developed icons to represent each of the 24 identified fallacies, which include ad-hominem – attacking your opponent’s personality traits or character instead of engaging with the issue; and strawman – misrepresenting your opponent’s argument to make it easier to attack.

screenshot of strawman logical fallacy

Mousing over each icon gives a one sentence summary of the fallacy, and clicking the relevant icon links to a short description and example.

In a fun twist, the site suggests that if a logical fallacy is spotted, the link to the relevant fallacy from the site be forwarded to the fallacy-committer, or included in a comment or response to them!

Even more entertaining would be if the site could also collect and publish fallacies submitted by people who spot them – like a crowdsourced rogues’ gallery of logic-underminers.

The site is a useful teaching tool for sharpening critical thinking and debating skills. It is a simple idea, but it serves an important function – it allows this knowledge to be quickly accessible without needing to have studied the Greek philosophers, and it supports a healthy democratic process. The quality of much of what passes for ‘debate’ in the public domain can only improve with a citizenry well-equipped to spot a strawman or a tu quoque.

A free pdf poster of the fallacies can be downloaded from the site. The creators have made this resource available for free – so please consider tipping them a few bucks using the Donate button on the site.

Do you recall a time when you were watching a debate, or when someone with whom you were having a debate came out with a lapse in logic that left you incredulous, or in fits of laughter?

Have you ever caught yourself using any of the identified fallacies? Which ones? 

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