Monday, March 02, 2009

Worst Argument Result...

When I went to cover a RPE101 (Philosophical and Ethical Arguing) class in December, I chatted with the students about fallacies and bad arguments – and was reminded of an in-class exercise I often did with students. This involved taking in a pile of the day’s newspapers and the class, in groups, hunting through them for examples of various fallacies (Straw Man, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc [and causal fallacies in general], shifting the burden of proof, and the like). This was always fun, but I thought that our blog might be the means for a more ambitious version of this activity…

So in December we asked for submissions for our Britain’s Worst Argument competition. As you can see from the comments left on the blog – we had a lot of response – and lots of submissions also came by email. The one that received the most comment was the Atheist’s Nightmare – possibly due to the comic connection of fundamentalist creationism and a banana – but this was American and not eligible. We did have quite a crop of submissions relating to creationism and the Design Argument (for God’s existence), but most of these were from across the Atlantic.

I think one of my favourites, and it was sent anonymously so I cannot say where it hails from, was:

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

Hairdresser: "It has been thoroughly 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.

This makes a great point about people’s (mis)understanding of probability and statistic, and also really made me smile. However – this is a competition – and needs a winner… (drum roll…) – and I think the worst argument we encountered (from more than one submission) is the nationalistic deployment of bifurcation. It was captured by Shelley Campbell (one of our postgraduate students) when she wrote (in response to the original post):

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."

Bifurcation is where you present the reader/listener with only two alternatives, and imply that if they reject/are not aligned with one, they agree with/are aligned with the other alternative by default.

I could speak to a student: are you going to do that essay today, or be a life-wasting loser who never achieves anything? It is not uncommon in many settings, and is a way of trying to preclude the discussion of other possibilities (are you going to give up your job, or do you not love me? - there are states of affairs that might combine some of the two? or third options?).

The argument is more sinister though when used to dismiss political views by claiming they are insufficiently patriotic / pro-British (in this case). In the recent discussion of 'British Jobs for British Workers' it was hard (should one have wished to do so) to criticise the protesters without seeming unpatriotic or anti-British: in cases of war, this can lead not only to faulty reasoning - but to death and loss of life...

What is so bad about bifurcation?
• It is effective – in the heat of an argument we often fall for it: thinking that if there are only two options, we must defend one – even if absurd – rather than allow the one we dislike to dominate.
• Often the person using it does not really see things in such stark terms themselves.
• It is ‘bad’ because it is used effectively all the time in politics – witness the scramble to prove oneself patriotic in the US elections.
• Beyond nationalism, bifurcation impoverishes political debates all around us: “if you disagree with me, you are an extremist of some sort” – this is a common, dangerous and fallacious strategy: the worst argument (in the broadest sense) that we came across…


  1. Hi David,
    What you call bifurcation was taught as `false dichotomy' in our critical thinking class. The course instructor also coined the term `false enchotomy' when the dilemma contained `n' disjuncts.

    The examples you post are amusing!

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