Monday, December 01, 2008

Britain's Worst Argument?

Following from some exercises I have done in classes, and after a chat with the RPE101 students I had a week or two ago – I have decided we could look for Britain’s Worst Argument.

This could be a formal fallacy of some sort - such as:

All philosophers are strange
Jeremy is strange
Therefore, Jeremy is a philosopher

As all students will recognise – this is an invalid piece of reasoning. The first statement only tells us that all philosophers are strange – not that all strange people are philosophers. Jeremy might be a strange plumber – a possibility left open by the first line (premise).

We may find more informal errors – such as people claiming that a point of view is correct because it is new, or indeed ‘ancient’ (as in ‘Ancient Wisdom), or popular.

Another popular approach is to suggest that someone is wrong due to their faults. My friend may be an ugly, smelly, and overbearing individual – but my telling him that does not mean that his argument about the matter at hand is wrong.

We might presume (often wrongly) that because one event precedes another – it causes the latter. E.g. I wore odd socks yesterday, then won at tennis: therefore my sock-wearing led to my victory - - this type of causal fallacy is often the basis for superstitions…

I would like to ask students – and other readers of this blog (anyone really) – to find us the worst pieces of reasoning they can find. International examples are welcome – but we will pick the winner from the British examples submitted…

Use the comment facility on this blog ( www.r-p-e.blogspot.com ) to submit them – or email them to me at dwebster@glos.ac.uk (say if you’re happy for me to post the argument on the blog when you email it).

We may even find a prize under some of the piles of books in my office…

We will post a blog story reporting on out findings (and the winner) in the New Year…

Happy hunting

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

Need some help / examples?

See http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html

46 comments:

  1. More ideas to help at http://www.fallacyfiles.org/examples.html

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  2. Anonymous4:00 pm

    I'm not British, but this piece of reasoning is due to a British person I know, regarding the recent homosexual marriage vote in California.

    P1) If heterosexual couples cannot engage in an activity that homosexual couples can engage in, then fairness requires that homosexual couples cannot engage in an activity that heterosexual couples can engage in.
    P2) Heterosexual couples cannot engage in homosexual sexual activity.
    C) Therefore, fairness requires that homosexuals cannot marry one another.

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  3. Here are two:

    http://inquiry.mcdaniel.edu/videos/CrossfireIntelligentDesign.swf

    and

    http://inquiry.mcdaniel.edu/videos/BillOReillyKatrina.swf

    One has to be a little charitable in reconstructing the arguments. I take the conclusion of O'Reilly's talking points memo to be his call to action: that every American school child should be shown videos of how the poor in New Orleans suffered, so that they will learn self-motivation. At least, that is the only proposition asserted herein that appears to rest on any other proposition.

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  4. Thanks to Barry (and others) for pointing me to http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/worst.html

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  5. Anonymous7:50 pm

    Each fallacy thinks that it is the best:
    http://www.geekpress.com/2006/09/excellent-list-of-logical-fallaciesad.html

    ReplyDelete
  6. The worst argument ever is Joseph de Maistre's proof that God exists based on the calculation of a special proportion between the number of human fingers and teeth. Though it resembles in significant ways proofs from complexity (dating back at least to Aquinas), it's much more openly non-sequitur as there are absolutely no links between the steps. Sorry, I cannot find this online, but it's absolutely hilarious.

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  7. Anonymous8:32 pm

    Although a God a'fearin' bit of folk myself,
    I think the Atheist's nightmare is at least as bad as de Maistre's proof:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4yBvvGi_2A

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  8. If we're in link-posting form, we've got to have some proofs that p.

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  9. I know I am meant to be neutral here - but that http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4yBvvGi_2A is, if serious, wholly astounding - if only I had thought of it like that before!

    DW

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  10. Here's a nice piece of reasoning by some comedian or other that I saw on TV the other day - I forget who, but this was the gist:

    P1: 6000 people died as a direct result of drinking last year.
    P2: 4000 people died as a direct result of driving last year.
    P3: 500 people died as a direct result of drink driving last year.
    C: Drink driving is safer than either drinking or driving alone.

    ReplyDelete
  11. not officially a worst argument, just a fallacy in picture form:

    http://i37.tinypic.com/29kx62p.gif

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  12. Anonymous9:56 pm

    I got this one from a hairdresser when inquiring about a shampoo against hairloss:

    Hairdresser: "It has been thouroughly tested and it works on 30%"

    Me: "Well,... that sound good, but do you have one with more percentages?"

    Hairdresser: "No,... but think again, there's a fifty-fifty percentage change that it will work on you?"

    Me: (I teach statistics)"How's that?"

    Hairdresser: "Well, that's obvious, either it works on you, or it doesn't!"

    No need to say, I bought the shampoo right away.

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  13. The banana argument for the existence of god is indeed serious; that's Ray Comfort, well known bible thumper, presenting it

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  14. I provide a (foreign) contestant here:
    http://philosophydad.blogspot.com/2008/12/wait-for-it.html

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  15. This is American, not British, but how about the notorious argument put forward by the 'Competitive Enterprise Institute' about global warming: 'Carbon Dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life'. See:

    http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=Wq_Bj-av3g0

    Some comments on this argument (and a transcript) can be found here:

    http://unspeak.net/we-call-it-life/

    ReplyDelete
  16. This is American, not British, but how about the notorious argument from the 'Competitive Enterprise Institute' about global warming: 'Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution; we call it life'. See:

    http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=Wq_Bj-av3g0

    Some comments and a transcript can be found here:

    http://unspeak.net/we-call-it-life/

    ReplyDelete
  17. Michael Feld,1:06 am

    "The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it."
    J. S. Mill, "On Virtue and Happiness"

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  18. Anonymous6:00 am

    Can't remember who made this argument, but he was perfectly serious:

    To build a large structure, you need a blueprint.
    To make a blueprint, you need a written language.
    Neolithic britons had no written language.
    Therefore, aliens from outer space built Stonehenge.

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  19. G. Tingey8:59 am

    Any argument AT ALL, which "argues" that the bible/koran is LITERALLY true, and that evolution is not the case.

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  20. One from email:

    If you are looking for bad ethical claims as well as
    bad deductive ones, try this:

    Bill Vanderzalm, former Premier of British Columbia,
    was obliged to resign in the wake of the following scandal:

    His wife's real estate firm was apparently profiteering from
    international investments accrued via his political influence.

    When accused of blatant "conflict of interest" Vanderzalm replied,
    on television, that "It's only a conflict of interest if people find out."

    Not surprisingly, this defense did not save him.

    First, on deductive grounds, his argument happens to be valid.
    1) If people find out, then it's a conflict of interest.
    2) People have found out.
    3) Therefore, it's a conflict of interest.
    So his "defense" was actually a confession.

    Second, on ethical grounds, the claim that conflicts of interest
    exist only if exposed by media is egregious, even for a politician.
    ---

    Lou Marinoff

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  21. Another set of contenders - by email (thanks) -

    You may quote these.

    In the worst argument category:

    Not original:

    P1. Nothing is better than freedom.
    On the other hand,
    P2. Prison life is better than nothing.
    Therefore,
    C. Prison life is better than freedom.

    Also not original:

    P1. Only man is rational.
    P2. No woman is a man.
    Therefore,
    C. No woman is rational

    Original:
    Theorem: Reductio ad absurdum (RAA) is not a good method of proof.
    Proof by Reductio ad absurdum.
    1. Suppose RAA were a good method of proof.
    2. Then this argument would be good.
    3. But this argument is no good.
    Therefore, RAA is not a good method of proof.

    You may challenge step 3, "But this argument is no good," on the grounds that it is false. Introducing a false claim into the argument makes the argument no good. So, if step 3 is false, the argument is no good. And that is all we need for the proof to go through.


    Skipper

    --
    Robert Boyd Skipper, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Department of Philosophy
    Saint Mary's University
    San Antonio, TX 78228

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  22. Thanks to John S for this one:

    How about one on Radio 4 Today program today, 2 December 2008: "If you want to see the effect of global warming, go and see the melting glaciers in the Himalayas."

    (I heard a climatologist saying that the glaciers had been melting for thousands of years, and would continue to do so, regardless of what we did.)

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  23. From Ellen Fridland (thanks):

    "The American educational assault goes farther than immorality; it extends into the illogical and absurd. Did you know that our ancestors were monkeys?
    What?
    You say that you knew your ancestors, and though one of your uncles had a low forehead, he was hardlysimian? You may also say that the first man was Prophet Adam, peace and blessings be upon him, and he was no monkey. !!!!!!You know this because God said so, not just in Islam but in all three major religions of the world!!!!! and plus evolution has been deemed impossible by a huge but muffled community of scientists".

    (exclamation points addedfor emphasis)

    from Zeba Khan's "why I am never going back to
    america"

    there are more great bad arguments there, too:

    http://blogs.albawaba.com/ummammaar/563/2005/12/21/4779-why_i_am_never_going
    _back_to_america

    ReplyDelete
  24. Kapitano2:54 pm

    One of my schoolteachers was a priest. He used the following argument to intimidate students:

    "This is my hand. But what's the thing that owns it? It can't be the body, because the hand is part of the body, and the hand can't own itself.

    There's got to be something beyond the body that does the owning. That thing could only be the soul. Souls couldn't exist without god. Therefore god exists. Therefore you're going to hell for not believing."

    He didn't get a single convert.

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  25. I quite liked my argument for 'Mandatory Chocolate'

    P.1 It is imperative that we should not do bad things

    P.2 Chocolate is, broadly speaking, a good thing

    A.1 Therefore, not eating chocolate is a bad thing (from P.2)

    A.2 Therefore, it is imperative that we should not not eat chocolate (from P.1 & A.1)

    Conclusion: WE MUST EAT CHOCOLATE! (from A.2)

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  26. knowledge is power, power is energy/time, therefore power = (mass x speed of light squared)/time. so fat people are more likely to be clever.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Anonymous7:57 am

    This is more of a universal idea largely involving money you can insert almost anything into this space (it also comes from The United States).

    1. This result is absolutely bad
    2. Only an idiot would deliberately want this result
    3. I am not an idiot
    4. therefore I did not do (1)

    ReplyDelete
  28. Fictional, but still British...

    “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
    “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.”
    “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
    “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went on.
    “And how do you know that you’re mad?”
    “To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”
    “I suppose so,” said Alice.
    “Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”
    “I call it purring, not growling,” said Alice.

    1. A dog is not mad
    2. A dog growls when it's angry and wags its tail when it's pleased.
    3. The Cheshire Cat growls (purrs) when it's pleased and wags its tail when it's angry.
    4. Therefore, The Cheshire Cat is mad.

    Or just not a dog...

    On the other hand that flawed logic might the be real proof that the cat is mad, thus making it quite a good argument after all.

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  29. Anonymous7:53 pm

    British like in from a Subject of the Crown?

    I guess the worst bit I've ever heard is that there should still be a Queen of the UK *because* it is good for tourism.

    I guess the fallacy has to do with it being irrelevant and in fact reducing the royal justification qua royalty to nil... not that it's not immune to there being one day a Disneyland London making for a more profitable attraction.

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  30. Anonymous8:06 pm

    Jack Kevorkian is a retired coroner who used to go around the Detroit area "assisting in the suicides" of some terminally ill and many disabled people, often in motels where he could leave the cleanup to the housekeeping staff. He did this, according to his book "Prescription: Medicide," because he wanted there to be some category of people he could be allowed to vivisect. Liberal do-gooders opposed his proposal to offer death penalty prisoners the choice between sedation and vivisection or some other unattractive form of death. So he needed to find another group to whose deaths he could desensitize society until he could be allowed to perform his experiments on them. And he had been tried for this behavior (which was illegal) on a number of occasions, and acquitted because jurors thought assisted suicide ought to be legal. Eventually he sent a videotape of himself killing a man to a television network, and was once again charged with murder. At this last trial he represented himself, and during his defense he offered the following proof:

    1. The coroner ruled that the cause of death was homicide.
    2. Homicide is not the same thing as murder.
    3. Therefore it wasn't murder.

    The jurors recognized his proof as invalid, and he was convicted.

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  31. I can't really think of one right now... and I know this isn't exactly related, but talking of rubbish arguments... Solipsism as an argument is something that is completely ridiculous. It's not nice (from a psychological perspective) to think that the only thing that is certain, and the only thing that does exist, is yourself. It's also a bit egotistical :P.

    I know that's not a contribution. But oh well!

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  32. Beth (again)11:35 am

    Come to think of it - some silly people could say:

    1) God is defined as that which no greater can be conceived
    2) A solipsist claim is that nothing can be justified to exist independently of the mind
    3) If nothing else can he justified independent of the mind, nothing can be greater than the solipsists mind because the world is dependent upon the mind to exist (or at least known)
    4) The mind is greater than everything
    5) My mind is God
    6) The mind is equal to the identity of myself
    7) Therefore; I am God.



    Philosophy is so silly sometimes. :)

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  33. I don't know the nationality of the author of this one, but it was in an evaluation of a rejected project application for a literary topic: "The hypotheses presented are certainly clear but can in no way be realistic since their underlying presupositions [sic] work against realism."

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  34. Ok, so this doesn't come from a British person, but still a good one.

    When I was in high school, I had a Sunday school teacher who said that evolution can't be true because it's ridiculous to think that a giraffe could give birth to a fern. This is a classic example of the straw man fallacy, because very few people (if any) would even suggest that that's how evolution works.

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  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  36. Ad Hominem:
    Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross:
    1. two highly paid presenters
    2. paid to be 'edgy', over the top, and generally behave like idiots
    3. they work hard at being 'edgy', over the top and generally behave like idiots
    4. one gets fired, the other has his knuckles rapped. They are both criticised, de-famed, defiled, publicly humiliated as 'evil', bad influences, examples of the 'the decadent times of which we live'

    Bifurcation (the missing middle):
    Politicians use this one - if we are not heart-throbbing nationals then we are traitors. For example, "If you are not for us, you are against us."

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  37. Anonymous5:22 pm

    How about someone telling me in a discussion about climate change that they didn't believe what scientists said because they didn't believe in scientific facts because scientists had been proved wrong in the past - e.g. about the earth being flat - and so at some point in the future the scientific facts about climate change that are currently accepted will also be proved wrong... I was in awe of his optimism that the human race will survive that long given this level of stupidity! For further evidence of human stupidity see the new film coming out next year with Pete Postlethwaite in called 'The Age of Stupid' - kind of sums it up for me really...

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  38. Karl Pfeifer4:52 pm

    P1. There are many bad arguments.
    C Therefore, there is an argument that is the worst.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Anonymous2:46 am

    If the pathetic aspect of an argument is partly judged on the sheer masses of people who believe it despite its weak logic, then the pro-gun people in the USA have got a real winner with their "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

    You could say it's not an argument, but that doesn't account for the millions of people who really believe this to be a persuasive argument for avoiding gun control. I could go on and on about why this totally misses the point of the gun-control issue (e.g., for that matter nuclear bombs don't kill people...), but I'm sure you can figure that out for yourself.

    Once again, what makes this so terrible to me is that millions of people bat this crap about in an effort to convince others of their position.

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  40. In my research on Humour I have found that 'bad arguing' is often a cause for Humour. Freud sees that an appearance of logic often conceals faulty reasoning or sophistry. Here's one about a marriage broker (matchmaker) and a man in search of a wife:

    The marriage broker was defending the girl he had proposed against the young man's protests. "I don't care for the mother-in-law," said the latter. "She's a disagreeable, stupid person." - "But after all you're not marrying the mother-in-law. What you want is her daughter." - "Yes, but she's not young any longer, and she's not preceisely a beauty." - "No matter. If she's neither young nor beautiful she'll be all the more faithful to you." - "And she hasn't much money." - "Who's talking about money? Are you marrying money then? After all it's a wife that you want." - "But she's got a hunchback too." - "Well, what do you want? Isn't she to have a single fault?"

    ReplyDelete
  41. Anonymous1:29 pm

    An argument to ponder:

    1. The tone of most of the posts on your blog is cynical.
    2. In some way blogs like yours seem to encourage not only critical thinking, but also cynicism.
    3. Critical thinking is a virtue, while cynicism is not.
    4. There is likely something wrong either in the folks who come to your site (like me) or there is something wrong with the way your site encourages cynicism....and you're not doing anything about it.
    5. You should do something about it.

    The argument has its flaws, but premise #1 and the conclusion are both true. Times being what they are, I don't have time to make a better argument. I leave to you folks as an assignment to make a better argument for the true conclusion.

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  42. Anonymous6:20 pm

    Actual logic:

    Guns don't kill people

    people kill people

    therefore it's a bad idea to let people have guns

    ReplyDelete
  43. Anonymous2:11 am

    The universe and all of our world began with creation. The world is really screwed up and ambiguities abound. Only a committee could have done so poor a job of design. Thus we have multi-theism.

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  44. Here is surely one of the worst bad arguments of the last century or so:

    1. Only those forms of government that are good ought to receive serious political consideration.
    2. The Soviet Union failed to maintain its integrity as a State.
    2a. Thus, the Soviet Union had a bad form of government.
    3. Therefore, socialism ought not to receive serious consideration as a form of government.
    4. And this means we have arrived at a liberal-democratic 'End of History'.

    Never mind the much-derided Francis Fukuyama himself; versions of this argument have been a mainstay for politicians and intellectuals alike, on both sides of the aisle, in many of the so-called liberal democracies, since 1989.

    There are too many fallacies to be fully worth going into, but three bear special mention. In reverse order:

    a) Even ignoring the Hegel bit, the idea that there is only one perceivedly viable system of government in the world today is simply counterfactual. For starters, there are still a variety of different political systems operating and exerting different degrees of attraction. As importantly, though, "liberal democracy" is not a unified system of government. Differences between the States accorded that title include many distinctions that can be (and often are) understood as differences of order, not just of degree.

    b) Most importantly, perhaps, the Soviet Union does not equal socialism. One hardly need be a socialist (of which variety?) to recognize that the material reality associated with one historically conditioned way of approaching a concept is not the same thing as the concept itself.

    c) Finally, one State's failure to maintain territorial integrity and State cohesiveness by no means implies that the system of government prevailing in that State is not good. This leap (from 2 to 2a), which is perhaps the largest one in this faulty chain of schizophrenic reasoning, would also suggest that liberal democracy itself is not a good system of government--after all, many States (from Nazi Germany to much of sub-Saharan Africa) committed to this system have failed to maintain their State-ness.

    Disturbingly, this argument--even as increased transnational, non-governmental violence has brought home to many that not everyone sees the world in the same way--maintains an odd cultural resonance in Britain, the United States, and much of the continent. I submit that this is among the worst arguments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for three reasons:

    1. The connections between its premises are so tenuous as to be insubstantial entirely.

    2. The ethical position it takes is completely untenable because
    a) the causal leaps are wild and improbable in a degree that reflects an unreflective pre-commitment to a particular ideological stance (this is unethical because unreflective commitment makes conversation--and hence liberal democracy as conceived by many--impossible; the sense of ethics in use here suggests that an action is unethical when it renders impossible the system in aid of which that action is taken); and connectedly
    b) the argument contains no awareness of positions contrary to the arguer's own (i.e., awareness of systems of thought that imply a politics other than that of liberal democracy or socialism; or that imply a politics so different from any currently practiced as to be of a different order, even where taking the same name; or that imply orders of difference within the political systems exceptionally loosely grouped under the heading, 'liberal democracy'; etc.). An unawareness of others who see the world in other ways renders, once more, liberal democracy in most conceptions of the term impossible.

    3. The conclusion reached by the argument is unpragmatic; that is, not tending to produce the goods widely perceived as being valued by the system in aid of which the argument is advanced (i.e., goods like peace, general prosperity, widely spread high standards of living, general political participation, responsiveness and/or accountability of governments to their populaces, etc.). This is similar but not identical to the unethical, as I'm using the terms here; the primary distinction is that the unethical renders impossible that which it aims to maintain or is presented as maintaining, while the unpragmatic merely thwarts important aims of that which it aims to maintain or is presented as maintaining.

    I certainly don't want to suggest a knowledge that this must be Britain's worst argument; there are too many possible categories that could be applied, and since I'm not the one applying them, I can only submit that I believe it to be one of the worst arguments currently circulating in the world. And for that, I offer one syllogism:
    1. Overall harmfulness of an argument is a function of both its general acceptance and its individual perniciousness.
    2. The argument here referenced is (as suggested) individually extremely pernicious and quite generally accepted.
    3. Therefore, that argument is not only illogical, unethical, and unpragmatic (as suggested), it is also exceptionally harmful.

    Q.E.D.

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  45. I was thinking about this the other day (in the context of the healthy eating / obesity obsession, but applies to other aspects of life too).

    There is an argument that is often used by people to avoid doing something that is difficult and will take some time to have an effect (e.g. eating more healthily):

    "Yes, but I could get hit by a bus tomorrow"

    I'm not trained in logic, but I could try to formalise it thus:

    P1. There is an action X that would be beneficial to me, but that I wish to avoid

    P2. X will take some time to have its beneficial effects

    P3. In the meantime, there is a probability that I will die suddenly and unexpectedly, thereby not benefiting from X

    C. Therefore it is not worth me undertaking X.


    It's a bad argument because, it seems to me, it assigns the same weight to a low probability event as to a high probability event.

    It is rather unlikely that you will die suddenly and unexpectedly in the near future. But if you are overweight, and you start to eat more healthily and take more exercise etc, it is very likely that you will lose weight.

    Cheers!

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  46. From twitter

    If you agree "no taxation without representation", then you have to agree "no representation without taxation" or you are inconsistent. (Arguing for disenfranchising the unemployed in the UK)

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