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Dishonest or ‘crooked’ arguments are nothing new, but recently our fractious politics coupled with the invention of the Internet have lent them a fresh intensity, and a wider reach. Would that Straight and Crooked Thinking, written by Robert H. Thouless and first published in 1930, was now more widely read and taught in schools. This little book would not solve all our problems, of course, but it might help us see through partisan propaganda, take on unprincipled Internet warriors, persuade others honourably, defend our own beliefs effectively and (crucially) change our minds when necessary.

Part guide to rhetoric, part logic primer, Straight and Crooked Thinking was written in plain language for a general readership and produced with the support of the Workers’ Educational Association – one of many clues to the author’s own political leanings. Born in 1894, Robert Henry Thouless became a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, went on to become Head of the Department of Psychology at Glasgow University, and then returned to Cambridge as a Reader. He died in 1984.

A devotee of the then revolutionary teachings of Sigmund Freud, Thouless was an idealist, as well as an evangelist for clear, logical thinking. He believed that a scientific approach to the public conversation around politics and economics would usher in a golden age of rationality, prosperity and accord between nations. ‘We can solve the problems of war and poverty if we approach them in the same scientific spirit as we have now learned to apply to disease,’ he writes. ‘A really educated democracy, distrustful of emotional phraseology and all the rest of the stock-in-trade of the exploiters of crooked thinking, devoid of reverence for ancient institutions and ancient ways of thinking, could take conscious control of our social development and could destroy these plagues of our civilization – war, poverty and crime . . . but the revolution must start i

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Dishonest or ‘crooked’ arguments are nothing new, but recently our fractious politics coupled with the invention of the Internet have lent them a fresh intensity, and a wider reach. Would that Straight and Crooked Thinking, written by Robert H. Thouless and first published in 1930, was now more widely read and taught in schools. This little book would not solve all our problems, of course, but it might help us see through partisan propaganda, take on unprincipled Internet warriors, persuade others honourably, defend our own beliefs effectively and (crucially) change our minds when necessary.

Part guide to rhetoric, part logic primer, Straight and Crooked Thinking was written in plain language for a general readership and produced with the support of the Workers’ Educational Association – one of many clues to the author’s own political leanings. Born in 1894, Robert Henry Thouless became a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, went on to become Head of the Department of Psychology at Glasgow University, and then returned to Cambridge as a Reader. He died in 1984. A devotee of the then revolutionary teachings of Sigmund Freud, Thouless was an idealist, as well as an evangelist for clear, logical thinking. He believed that a scientific approach to the public conversation around politics and economics would usher in a golden age of rationality, prosperity and accord between nations. ‘We can solve the problems of war and poverty if we approach them in the same scientific spirit as we have now learned to apply to disease,’ he writes. ‘A really educated democracy, distrustful of emotional phraseology and all the rest of the stock-in-trade of the exploiters of crooked thinking, devoid of reverence for ancient institutions and ancient ways of thinking, could take conscious control of our social development and could destroy these plagues of our civilization – war, poverty and crime . . . but the revolution must start in our own minds.’ Thouless begins by focusing on the use of emotionally toned words and introduces us to thirty-four ‘dishonest tricks which are commonly used in argument, with the methods of overcoming them’. Some are probably common knowledge, albeit often only partially understood (for instance ‘begging the question’, an expression almost uniformly misrepresented these days); some, like ‘the use of a syllogism with undistributed middle term’, will probably be familiar to those whose education included a grounding in logic. But many will, I suspect, be new to the majority of modern readers, or understood only subconsciously. So we learn to be alert for suggestion by prestige; for the recommendation of a position which is the mean between two extremes; for diversion by irrelevant objection; for proof by selected instances; for statements in which ‘all’ is implied but only ‘some’ is true (particularly rife on the Internet); for extension or misrepresentation of an opponent’s position; for appeal to mere authority; for tabloid thinking (in its original sense of something made smaller, less complex and easy to swallow, like a tablet); for argument by imperfect analogy (also rife on the Internet); for special pleading, and many more. And as well as learning to identify these ‘crooked’ arguments when used by politicians, hucksters, professional controversialists, campaigners, journalists and our fellow civilians, Thouless challenges us to expunge them from our own arsenal – a far more arduous task. Unsurprisingly, war casts a long shadow over the book – as do many other matters of the day. ‘Wherever it is possible . . . I have made my illustrations from living controversial issues and from arguments that are actually used in defence of them,’ Thouless states in his introduction. And so through the pages flicker the ghostly flames of debates that once burned as bright as those of today, many of which (but not all) have since lost their heat: the value of the League of Nations, the condition of the working man in Russia, disarmament treaties, ‘agitators’ in India, anti-Catholic prejudice, public versus private ownership, nativism, taxation, attitudes to same-sex relationships and racial inequality. This first edition was very much of its time, so it is no surprise that a few of Thouless’s statements are likely to make the modern reader wince. Nevertheless, he was remarkably forward thinking on social issues, and his explicit aim was to equip readers with the tools to think logically about these very questions, particularly by examining their own beliefs and biases. One of the most appealing things about Straight and Crooked Thinking is its repeated insistence that the goal of clear thinking and honest argument is not to help one score points or win a victory, but to discover the truth. To that end, what Thouless requires from us is humility in conflict of a kind that’s rarely found, certainly not on social media and particularly not when it comes to those matters about which we feel strongly – the very matters concerning which he counsels us to be most on our guard against prejudice and fixity of thought. So when describing how to deal with the defence of an extreme position using the common formula ‘The exception proves the rule’, he first points out that in fact ‘prove’ once meant ‘test’, but then advises us that ‘If one is anxious to discover the truth and not to triumph over one’s opponent, one may try to discover what more moderate proposition is true.’ My 1945 edition has only one annotation by its original owner: in a section recommending that we put forward honestly the reasons we have for a belief, Thouless admits that such a method is likely to be unpopular with those ‘who want a feeling of certainty rather than a knowledge of truth’. These words have been firmly underlined, and they struck me with just as much force as they clearly had the book’s original owner – for who isn’t tempted to linger in the safe harbour of conviction rather than venture out into the unsettlingly choppy waters of inquiry and doubt? I’ve found only one bit of knavery in common use today that didn’t find its way into Thouless’s pages, for the simple reason that it would, I think, have been unconscionable in his day: that of taking up a position which requires that one appear stupid (despite being highly educated, and doubtless having a full grasp of the complexity of a situation) in order to appeal to those inclined to take a simplistic, black-and-white view. We might write this off as mere populism, which certainly existed in the 1930s, but I fear it now comes with a distinctly modern flavour: today’s politicians know better than most that our old respect for expertise and education is at an all-time low. Straight and Crooked Thinking is a book that really can change an open-minded reader for the better, in terms of behaviour in disputes, grasp of complex or prejudicially reported issues, and knowledge of the biases that risk marring our perception or narrowing our sympathies. But be warned: it’s also a book that can make one even crosser with our flawed and fractious polity by bringing dirty tricks, lazy arguments and crooked thinking more clearly into view. Strangely enough, Professor Thouless’s admirably rational mind was no proof against beliefs we might now find a little surprising. He had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, conducted many experiments in parapsychology and wrote widely on ESP and psychokinesis. Indeed his belief that the dead could communicate with the living led him to leave behind a coded message in the hope that after his death, a medium could contact him to receive the key and thus crack the cipher. An award of $1,000 was offered, but no messages from the afterlife were received. Who knows, though: perhaps he had a look to see if his pleas for straight thinking and honest argument had caught on and transformed society, and decided that things being what they were, he was better off in the next place after all.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Melissa Harrison 2020


About the contributor

Melissa Harrison’s latest novel, All Among the Barley, is set in the 1930s.

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