August 06, 2004

Rhetorical flypaper

Birger Nielsen quotes "Thirty-eight dishonest tricks which are commonly used in argument, with the methods of overcoming them", from a 1930 work Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless.

Here's what Thouless says he's up to:

"In most textbooks of logic there is to be found a list of "fallacies", classified in accordance with the logical principles they violate. Such collections are interesting and important, and it is to be hoped that any readers who wish to go more deeply into the principles of logical thought will turn to these works. The present list is, however, something quite different. Its aim is practical and not theoretical. It is intended to be a list which can be conveniently used for detecting dishonest modes of thought which we shall actually meet in arguments and speeches. Sometimes more than one of the tricks mentioned would be classified by the logician under one heading, some he would omit altogether, while others that he would put in are not to be found here. Practical convenience and practical importance are the criteria I have used in this list. If we have a plague of flies in the house we buy fly-papers and not a treatise on the zoological classification of Musca domestica. This implies no sort of disrespect for zoologists; or for the value of their work as a first step in the effective control of flies. The present book bears to the treatises of logicians the relationship of fly-paper to zoological classifications."

A neat idea; and the list of 38 tricks and parries is interesting. I do wonder, "why 38?"

Google doesn't really help here, other than to suggest that it's probably an accident. There are 332,000 pages indexed by the search string "thirty eight", as opposed to 310,000 for "thirty seven" and 306,000 for "thirty nine". Other than the cited page (which is number 1 for "thirty eight"), highly-ranked "thirty eight" pages include references to the 38 witnesses who didn't help Kitty Genovese, a Stargate Atlantis episode called "Thirty-Eight Minutes", and the DNC's claim that there were " 38 separate instances of intelligence that the State Department knew was faulty" in Colin Powell's WMD speech to the U.N.

Anyhow, the Thouless book was in print from 1930 through the mid seventies, but it doesn't seem to have done much to diminish the population of verminous insects in the world's rhetoric over the intervening decades. I'm reminded of the joke about the two Americans visiting New York. They have a series of communications failures with foreign tourists, who ask them for directions in a variety of languages, none of which they can understand. One of them says to the other, "you know, maybe we should learn another language." The first one responds "What for? Fat lot of good it did those foreigners!"

All the same, it would nice to see a similar analytic spirit applied again to the practical analysis of rhetorical techniques, both honest and dishonest. There's been a recent revival of interest in formal analysis of rhetorical structures, among cognitive psychologists and computer scientists as well as linguists. However, I haven't seen much connection between these strands of work and researchers in the social sciences -- or practical folk in politics and advertising either.

This sort of analysis is different from the recently-popular discussion of " framing" political debates. It's not that one is right and the other is wrong, they're just about different things. It would be a shame for the only analysis of political rhetoric to be in terms of frames, metaphors and word choices, as interesting as those topics are.

[Nielsen link via boingboing]


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 6, 2004 09:13 AM