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An Introduction to Critical Thinking


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Critical Thinking


Leo Kee Chye


Table of Contents

1. The Information-Haunted World

2. What is "reading between the lines"? 

3. Filtering out the argument 

4. "X-raying" the argument. 

5. Examining the argument in their skeletal logic. 

5.1 Ad Hominem (to the person) 

5.2 Appeal to Authority 

5.3 Appeal to Ignorance & Burden of Proof

5.4 Appeal to Tradition and Popularity 

5.5 Begging the Question 

5.6 Causation versus Correlation (Questionable Cause) 

5.7 False Dilemma 

5.8 Faulty Analogy

5.9 Faulty Induction or Generalisation 

5.10 Hasty Conclusion 

5.11 Inconsistency or Double Standard 

5.12 Irrelevant Reason/Premises 

5.13 Lack of Contrary Evidence 

5.14 Questionable Statistics 

5.15 Slippery Slope or Absurd Extrapolation 

5.16 Strawman 

5.17 Two Wrongs Make a Right

6. Bibliography


  1. The Information-Haunted World

    Every day, minute and second of our lives, we are relentlessly showered by information: information which we need and don’t. Television and radio are some of the prime culprits. With the advent of Internet, things seem verging out of control. And, of course, not forgetting the incessant rumbling of those around us — employers, friends and relatives.

    Almost all the time, these information we received are embedded with arguments; the purpose, if you are still unaware of, is to get us to take a stance, evoke a response, make a decision and so forth. Why we should buy shoes of this particular brand? Why our government believe more foreign talents are good for our country? Why US think that invading (or liberating) Iraq is justified. (Just to name a few examples.) Or as the old saying goes:

    "Information rarely informs but only to influence, induce and invoke."

    Actually, I made that up. But let’s face it, we need these information; they are indispensable in our lives. Based on all these information, we make decisions and these decisions could be anything from buying a pair of Nike shoes to throwing stones at US Embassies. Unless you want to live your life willy-nilly or renounce everything by withdrawing from the rest of the world, these information, unfortunately, are here to stay. It is not enough just to make decisions but to make good decision is what matters. Sifting through the thick overgrown jungle of information is no easy task, but there is a tool that might expedite the process. It is critical thinking. Innocuous and banal as it might sound, but, believe it or not, it is lacking in us all. And that includes yours truly.

    Critical thinking or informal logic — its jargonish equivalence — is the process of "reading between the line". Rather than accepting literally the stuffs spooned to us, we filter out the arguments from the information, ‘X-ray’ the arguments and examine them in their skeletal logic. Simple as it might sound but it is, I repeat, disturbingly lacking in us all. In fact, when chanced upon it in some books, I initially dismissed it as something commonsensical, but the continued reading revealed my embarrassing ignorance on the subject. Nevertheless, its importance is clearly an understatement. Hence I took upon myself the arduous task of researching into the subject, summarising the essentials and, finally, writing out this essay in manner that is both engaging and intuitive, without resorting to heavy-jargons and without pandering to frivolities. (Actually, the true is that was supposed to be my school assignment.)


  2. What is "reading between the lines"?

It consists of three:

  1. Filtering out the argument from information;
  2. "X-raying" the argument; and
  3. Examining the skeletal logic of the argument.


    3.Filtering out the argument

Ling Mei (1) : I really love this movie — Titanic. It is so romantic and touching; I actually cried out.

Ali (2) : Oh really? I think it’s downright mawkish and gave me nothing but goose pimples. It’s a stupid tearjerker.

Ling Mei (3) : That where you’re wrong! It goes to show that you couldn’t bother with the story-line, because if you do, you're bound to appreciate it.

Sounds familiar, eh? We often engage arguments of this sort without realising. Bear in mind that an argument consists of a claim and reason/s in support of that claim. Let us look at Ling Mei (1):

Reason : It’s romantic and touching.

Reason : She cried out.

Implicit Reason : When a show is romantic, touching and makes you cry out, you should like it.

Claim : She loves the show.

Whereas in the case of Ali (2):

Reason : It’s mawkish.

Reason : It gives you goose pimples.

Implicit Reason : When a show is mawkish and gives you goose pimples, you should loathe it.

Claim : He cannot stand it.

They look deceptively like arguments but they are not. (Some philosophers might disagree.) Both Ling Mei and Ali were presented with the same fact, that is to have watched the show "Titanic"; however, what they disagree is their respective opinion or attitude regarding the fact. They are merely expressing a personal or subjective opinion and cannot constitute an argument. There is not much to argue about since it is, using the proverbial saying, a clear case of one woman’s tears is another man’s goose pimples. They are not arguments but mere opinions.

Ling Mei (3), however, is an argument.

Reason : Ali does not know the story line.

Implicit Reason : One needs to know the story line in order to appreciate the show.

Claim : Ali does not appreciate the show.

Contrasts with the previous, the reason presented here is a statement of fact, not opinion. And this statement of fact has some logical relation to the asserted claim; that is, the truth of the reason can affect the truth of the claim. Even though Ling Mei (3) is an argument, it is a weak one. Ali might know the story line but that does not mean he will necessarily like it and thus appreciate it; the implicit reason — One needs to know the story line in order to appreciate the show — is not necessary true.

An argument is only considered an argument when:

  1. Reasons are given to support a certain claim;
  2. The reasons are not opinions but statement of facts.
  3. These statement of facts must have some logical relation to the asserted claim.

If you already think that is confusing, not to worry as you are in good company. Simple as it might sound but difficult when put to actual practice — one of the major ironies of life. It may not come as a surprise to most that much of our quarrels, conflicts and even wars in human history started out as personal, religious and cultural differences in opinions or values. Nevertheless, being human, we can learn to improve and it’s practice that makes us proficient.


    4. "X-raying" the argument.

Argument can be generally classified into two — one deductive and the other, inductive. Let’s consider a deductive argument.

Reason (1) : All pigs can fly.

Reason (2) : This is a pig.

Claim : This pig must be able to fly.

It is a preposterous yet perfectly valid argument, at least from a deductive logic point of view. A deductively valid argument means: Should the reasons of an argument be true, the claim must be equally true. Or another way of putting; it is logically impossible for the reasons be true yet the claims false. If all pigs indeed can fly and this is a pig, it should also fly. It is logically inconceivable that when all pigs can fly yet this one, also a pig, cannot. Are you confused? Not to fret too much about logic at this point since it is rather an esoteric discipline per se. For now, view logic as something like common sense. Consider this: A man comes up to you and said, " I am wearing and not wearing clothes at this moment." If your immediate reaction is to call the WoodBridge hospital, I congratulate you because you are thinking logic. It is logically impossible or against common sense that a man could both wear and not wear clothes at the same time. If you, on the other hand, understand perfectly what the man said…er…I suggest you seek psychiatric help urgently.

When "x-raying" an argument, it is pertinent to ask yourself:

  1. Are the reasons true? and
  2. Do the reasons support the claim? (Validity)

Only when the reasons are true and argument valid can you deem the argument to be sound; the converse is true for an unsound argument. Using the "flying pigs" example, although deductively valid, the reason is absurd; hence, the whole argument is unsound. Below is an example of a sound deductive argument:

Reason : All mothers are females.

Reason : This person is a mother.

Claim : This person is also a female.

In real life, however, most of the arguments are inductive rather than deductive. When "x-raying" the soundness of inductive arguments, again, you have to ask yourself:

  1. Are the reasons true? and
  2. Do the reasons support the claim? (Probable)

But notice that in the case of inductive argument, the claim is considered probable rather than valid; the more probable the claim, the sounder the inductive argument will be. This means the truth of its reasons does not always guarantee the truth of its claim; there is always a possibility, regardless how slim, of the claim be wrong. Consider the following argument:

Before the seventeen century, European thought that all swans are white as they yet then to see a non-white swan.

The argument structure:

Reason : The swans they have seen were white.

Claim : All swans in this world must be white.

This is an inductive argument. The sample of swans the Europeans saw were all white in colour and from this they inducted or reasoned that all swans in this world must be white. It wasn’t until Australia was explored by Europeans did they know the existence of black swans. The claim is false but the argument is a reasonable one given our limited knowledge of the vast world around us. We have to console ourselves by reminding us that: we are mere finite beings in an infinite world. There is no way where one can take all factors into consideration. Issac Newton did not experiment with every apple tree in this world before generalising that all apples should fall and continue to fall. By the same reasoning, all of us take for granted that the sun would continue to rise tomorrow. Strictly speaking, however, there is always a chance, despite how remote, the sun might not rise tomorrow.


    5.Examining the argument in their skeletal logic.


    Half of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb at.

    David Gerrold

    Similar to what Gerrold has put it, there is no better way of learning good argument than to start by spotting bad ones. Bad argument or fallacy is specious argument that seems correct but actually erroneous. Such argument attempt to persuade audience to alter ideas, values, beliefs, attitudes, or actions on the basis of misleading premises or faulty reasoning. Given the subtle and fuzzy reasoning used in such argument, most people made easy prey. Today, fallacious arguments are ubiquitous: in political speeches, advertisements, campaigns and almost anything you can think of. Whether such arguments are made intentionally or unintentionally, all out to deceive or with the best of intentions, you ultimately must make a decision from them and inevitably bear whatever ensuing consequences. The importance of recognising fallacious argument when you bump into one cannot be over exaggerated. In fact, as early as the fourth century, philosopher Aristotle, well aware of its importance, wrote the first book on fallacious reasoning — De Sophisticis Elenchis (On Sophistical Regutations). Although we have come a long way since Aristotle, we cannot claim to be anymore wiser if we are still credulous to specious argument.


    It would be a very good thing if every trick could receive some short and obviously appropriate name, so that when a man used this or that particular trick, he could at once be reprove for it.

    Arthur Schopenhauer

    Below is a compilation of the common fallacies to which unsuspecting audiences most easily will fall prey. The treatments of these fallacies are such that you learn to identify them outright, to pinpoint the flaw precisely and to criticise them accurately. In addition you learn to construct your own argument cogently and logically.

    One word of caution, critical thinking is no panacea for correct decision-making; it is, nevertheless, an indispensable tool for better decision-making.

    Socrates is said to have said that an unexamined life is not worth living. In the same vein, an unexamined argument is not worth accepting.


5.1 Ad Hominem (to the person)

      Below is a conversation with my friend immediately after an economic seminar by a foreign economist, not in verbatim:

      (Bracket is mine)

      I : I still don’t quite understand how a substitution effect could have led to a systematic depreciation of currency.

      Friend : Ah…forget what he [economist] said. He specialises in agricultural economics; what does he know about international trade and currency.

      This is a fairly familiar argument structure in our day-to-day conversation. Such specious argument is called ad hominem, which attacks the source of the argument, the arguer, rather than the argument. Ad hominem is a Latin word literally means to the person. My friend, in the above argument, did not attempt to repudiate the economist’s theory, instead he merely stated that: Since the Professor is an agriculture economist, it is unlikely he is an expert on non-agricultural related subject, therefore take no notice of him. The professor, however, put forward is an argument or theory; an argument, whether it stands or falls, will stand entirely on its own merits independent of the source; it makes no difference whether the argument is from an eminent economist or from an uncouth fishmonger. In fact, Albert Einstein was only a clerk at a patent office when he submitted his thesis on his theory of relativity.

      Despite all I have said, making ad hominem argument is rational if you consider the person’s motive. Most of us are under the constraint of time and resources; therefore, we tend to trust the higher authoritative sources (also read my section on Appeal to Authority).

      Not every ad hominem attack is invalid if what you are dealing with is a testimony rather than an argument. In a documentary about the life, career and family of our newly-elected president, many people were interviewed throughout the program about what they thought of the man, our president. If, for the sake of argument, a friend of yours was among those interviewed, and you have known him to be an inveterate liar and a shameless bootlicker, would you take his word seriously? If, on the other hand, that friend were known for his moral righteousness and his impeccable character, would you lend more credence to his word. Most likely, you would believe your holy, godlike friend and dismissed the other. It is valid to use ad hominem attack if the person is giving a testimony instead of an argument.

      In summary, if I am known to be an incorrigible liar, a devious knave and a demented paranoid, my testimony will be greatly undermined but has no bearing whatsoever on the strength of my argument. And the converse is equally true if I am reputed to be an angelic saint of irreproachable moral character. And no one has put it more succinctly than Samual Johnson in his following apt metaphor (illustrative analogy), extracted from Wallace (1988, pp 117).


      Argument is argument. You cannot help paying regard to their arguments, if they are good. If it were testimony you might disregard it…Testimony is like an arrow shot from a long bow; the force of it depends on the strength of the hand that draws it. Argument is like an arrow from a crossbow, which has equal force though shot by a child.

      Samual Johnson, Life, 1784


5.2 Appeal to Authority

From individuals:

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." (Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics at Yale University, October 17, 1929; the crash occurred exactly one week later.)

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." (Lord Kelvin, Mathematician, Physicist, and President of the British Society, 1895.)

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom…Nature has introduced a few foolproof devices into the great majority of elements that constitute the bulk of the world, and they have no energy to give up in the process of disintegration." (Dr. Robert Andrews Millikan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.)

"I could more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall down from heaven." (Thomas Jefferson, after reading a report by two Harvard professors claiming to have observed meteorites.)

And from established institutions:

The Operation Tailwind story, which was produced and broadcast on CNN and appeared in Time magazine and on CNN Interactive, is the latest in a series of recent cases that have caused major embarrassment to the journalistic community. The story, which CNN News Group Chairman, President and CEO Tom Johnson retracted and apologised for in a statement released Thursday, reported that a deadly nerve gas was secretly used by U.S. servicemen to kill American defectors in Laos in 1970. Read More

July 2, 1998

Web posted at: 10:37 p.m. EDT (0237 GMT)




But looking back, we also found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee (Wen Ho) the full benefit of the doubt. In those months, we could have pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the F.B.I. case against Dr. Lee. Full article Read More

September 26, 2000, Tuesday, Late Edition

SECTION: Section A; Page 2; Column 3; Metropolitan Desk




So much for these experts’ opinions and institutions’ reports? Their opinions and reports are as good as our guesses. In argumentation, experts’ opinions and institutions’ reports are often cited as reasons to substantiate a certain claim — because so-and-sos said so, therefore it must be. They may be experts in their field but not necessarily they must be correct. Therefore we must exercise some degree of scepticism when viewing them. However a word of caution, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water as Waller (1988, pp 126) aptly put it:


Appeal to…authority is a perfectly legitimate way of gathering information and confirming beliefs, as long as we keep in mind that no one source is absolute or infallible.

If we are not expert on the subject, does that mean we are at the mercy of these authorities? That is not necessarily so. There are rules of thumb that come in handy. Always ask ourselves:

  1. Is he an expert in that particular issue?
  2. Does he have an interest in the issue?
  3. Do we have the time, desire, resources and ability to reason or find out ourselves?

If Sim Wong Hoo (the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Singapore-based Creative Technology Ltd) were to comment about some political issues, you should take it with a pinch of rice. He may be an expert in the area of IT, but that does not also make him equally an expert in politics; his political comments are as good as our guesses. A misconception by the public is to regard these so-called experts as omniscience; that is, equally competent and knowledgeable outside the scope of their specialities. It is not uncommon to see or hear famous celebrities, politicians and personalities giving their views, comments and opinions about various issues that lie beyond their expertise.

If you see Tiger Woods endorsing a brand of golf club, would you take his word seriously? He, for one, is a golfer and an excellent one too; hence, he should be in a good position to gauge what make a club good. However, he also has vested interest in making such claim — he is being paid for the commercial. We, of course, should not hastily dismiss all claims made by groups with special interests. King’s College, London, for example, claims to have proven scientifically that Brand’s Essence of Chicken can increase one’s metabolic rate. In this case, the researchers in King’s College did a scientific study compares to a mere opinion or testimony by Tiger Woods. Despite the obvious special interest the researchers have, we should not hastily dismiss their claim as unreliable. Rather, we should check out whether the experiment was conducted under proper scientific condition and whether any other similar independent studies done also being done. Of course I doubt any one of us will or has the resources and time to do that; but I am using it only as an illustration. Tactics of such are abound in this world. Tiger Balm made use of such tactics by engaging a research team in Australia to prove the effectiveness of their product. TV Media and Sell-A-Vision often invoke claims by users and studies by researchers to lend credibility to their products. We must learn to be savvy consumers nowadays.

In the above, I have shown even reputable organisations are perfectly capable of getting their facts wrong and their analysis erroneous; but what about if they have gotten their facts right, leaving the analysis to the readers. Even if they are relating to the same facts in a matter-of-fact reporting style; journalist, editors and writers are still capable of moulding opinion and shaping attitude according to their own set of prejudices or opinions. Bertrand Russell recognised this when he made the succinct remark:

"I am firm, you are obstinate, and he is pigheaded."

The adjectives "firm", "obstinate", and "pigheaded" have the same denotation (explicit meaning) but carrying different connotations that cannot be reconciled with one another. Would you prefer to be called "firm" or "pigheaded"? Unless you are a misanthrope, you definitely will prefer the former to the latter. Nothing could be more insulting than to be describe as pigheaded, an adjective that carry negative emotional charge. The underlying meaning of a word is one thing; but the way it resonates in us all is quite another; and that is connotation. Though this section does not nicely fit into the classification of fallacy since this is not a fallacy to begin with, it does remind us the danger of our opinion can be subtly altered through the mere manipulation of words without changing the facts.

Let's look at headlines in some newspapers the day after the September 11 tragedy.

You can see our newspaper's (The Straits Times) headline stand out from the rest. In most contexts, when you brought someone to his knees, it means he, once proud and haughty, has been destroyed or humiliated by an unlikely opponent, something like David and the Goliath. In this case, the US is the Goliath. Definitely not a flattering headline.

I was not surprised when the headline elicited anger from an American friend of mine as well as drawing a grin from another friend who was a Muslim. (I must clarify that most of my Muslim friends do not condone such act). The editors who were on duty that day might think is a cute headline or they did not identify themselves with the Americans, thereby letting off a Freudian slip in writing which reflected their own opinion or prejudice.

One more example before I end this section. In a joint press conference held in Beijing in Feb 2002, Jiang Zemin and George Bush were taking questions from the reporters. However, a question on religious freedom sent Chinese President Jiang Zemin into an embarrassed silence. Let's look at how differently two newspapers reported the same incident.

The Washington Post: "As Jiang read, Bush winked at reporters and fought back a grin. But then the American president came to Jiang's rescue, volunteering to speak first after an American reporter politely pressed Jiang. Only at the end of the news conference did Jiang decide to go back and answer the questions posed by U.S. reporters." Full Article

The Straits Times: "Bush gives Jiang a hand at question time...In the first instance, Mr Bush came to his aid, volunteering to go first with his answers and giving Mr Jiang some breathing space." Full Article

Clearly, the relationship between the two presidents seemed more amiable when reported in The Straits Times than in The Washington Post though the reporters who wrote them attended the same event, yet they each conveyed a different atmosphere. As an avid reader of the two publications, I find both are biased to and against their news materials. The Washington Post clearly does not deem China favourably. Often, the paper will give a negative twist to news relating to China, even to the extent of turning a positive piece bad (like the China's successful bid to the 2008 Olympic) and negative one worse. On the other hand, The Straits Times tend to be more pro-China, unavoidably when the majority of Singaporeans are Chinese. Therefore, for those who are fed a regular diet from either publication will have their opinion shaped to those of the writers' or editors'.

Some humorous euphemisms that would do Russell proud:
Independent Thinker ..... Crazy
High-Spirited ..... Crazy, hyperactive, and throws things
Free-Spirited ..... Crazy and irresponsible
Ample ..... Large
Huggable ..... Large
Zaftig ..... REALLY Large
Fat and Sassy ..... Large and loudmouthed
Slender ..... Skinny
Svelte ..... Anorexic
Petite (I am) ..... Short
Petite (you are) ..... Size 2
Dynamic ..... Pushy
Assertive ..... Pushy with a mean streak
Excited About Life's Journey ..... No concept of reality
Moody ..... Manic-depressive
Unpredictable ..... Manic-depressive and off medication
Soulful ..... Manic-depressive and quiet
Poetic ..... Manic-depressive and boring
Looking for Mr Right ..... Looking for Mr Rich
Very Human ..... Quasimodo
Uninhibited ..... Lacking basic social skills
Irreverent ..... Mean and lacking basic social skills
Freedom-loving ..... Undependable
Young at Heart ..... Over 40
Chatty ..... Never shuts up
Humorous ..... Watches too much TV and never shuts up
Financially secure (I am) ..... Has a job
Financially secure (you are) ..... Rich
Affectionate ..... Horny
Romantic ..... Horny
Passionate ..... REALLY horny

I will end this section with an infamous quote:

Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kempf



5.3 Appeal to Ignorance & Burden of Proof

      From the newspaper, Straits Times, not in verbatim:

      Dr. Mahathir (Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad of Malaysia) : If Anwar (the ex-Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim) thinks he is really innocent of the charges, then he should prove it.

      Full transcript here

      This is an exemplary case of appeal to ignorance. In the American and British systems of criminal justice, a defendant is "innocent until proven guilty". There is never a need for him to prove his innocence, the burden of proof always lies with the prosecutor. The defence attorney only needs to show the prosecutor’s evidences of the alleged charges are not beyond a reasonable doubt. Fortunately, Dr. Mahathir is a doctor by training, not a lawyer.

      Appeal to ignorance is the argument that uses opponent’s inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the conclusion’s correctness (Barry and Soccio, 1988 pp 110). Or in another way of putting it: If you cannot prove that I am wrong, it only mean that I am right. Such arguments are often used in sensationalist tabloids. Take, for example, an article from a newspaper:

      Two weeks ago, we reported someone saw Miss X and Mr Y together. If it’s not true, they will categorically deny it . Since they did not, it only affirms our suspicion that there is really an illicit affair between them.

      Ignorance proves nothing except that we are ignorant (Kahana and Cavender, 1998, pp 71). When a person purports a certain claim, he shoulders the burden of proof. He has to adduce reasons, arguments or evidence to corroborate his claims, and not take advantage of the fact: No one has proven him wrong; therefore, he must be right.

      One more example before I wrap up this section:

      Fanatic : God exists!

      Atheist : Oh sure!

      Fanatic : Of course, after all, every effort by atheists to prove otherwise has failed.


5.4 Appeal to Tradition and Popularity

      The following is an example taken from Barry and Soccio (1988, pp 149),

      (Bracket is mine)

      I know god must exist. For all recorded history billions of people have believed in some type of deity. If the vast majority of Humankind [over the span of 50 centuries] has believed in god, who are we to doubt?

      I wonder has it occurred to him that many people once believe that the earth is flat, the sun revolves round earth, slavery is legitimate, monarchy is divine authority, heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, Chang2er2 live on the moon…etceteras. Defunct religions such as Manichaeism, Bogomils, Paulicians and that of the Greek’s, Egyptian’s and Roman’s rife for couple of centuries before lapsed into oblivion. In the same vein, perhaps by the twenty-second century, all gods and deities, revered by humankind today, will become obsolete. Even science, the epitome of rationality and objectivity, often challenged by new theories, new findings and new observations. Newtonian Mechanics, for example, reigned unchallenged for two centuries until Quantum Mechanics and Theory of Relativity come into scene. The Laws of Newtonian Mechanics breaks down under special physical conditions.

      Two special varieties of appeal to authority (see my section on Appeal to Authority). One is appeal to tradition and its fallacy is using the past to justify a claim at present. It is also called appeal to traditional or conventional wisdom. The implicit assumption used in this fallacy is the test of time: Since this issue, notion or whatever has stood up to the test of time, it a proven system, it must be correct. From the illustration I have given above, this assumption, however, does not really stand up to the test of time nor logic.

      Take another example, the following is a conversation with a friend of mine:

      My friend : I believe in Chinese herbal medications; it really works!

      I : But it has not been scientifically proven.

      My friend : Come on, these stuffs are as old as the Chinese civilisation. If they are not effective, they won’t last until now. Just think, so many people have tried them, you can’t fool all of them, can you?

      I do believe that some Chinese herbal medications are scientifically proven to be effective, but I am more interested in the argument put forward by my friend. If his reply were: "Not being proven now does not imply it will never be proven. More research are needed in this area.", I would consider his argument sound or, at least, I will have a hard time rebuffing him. Rather, he invoked the fallacy of appeal to tradition. Despite many people have tried and have shown the medications to be effective, that does not mean they are truly effective. In western medical science, there is such a term called placebo effect. Placebos are fake medicines but pass for as real ones and they could be anything from vitamins to sugar tablets. Doctors found that some patients actually recovered from their illness when administered placebos. Sometime it is the patients’ faith in the medications that heal them rather that the effectiveness of the medications. Therefore modern researchers when testing out new drugs, perform rigorous experiments to ensure it is the effectiveness of the drugs not the patients’ faith that cures their sickness. They normally divide the sample of patients into three groups: The control group where no medications are administered; the placebo control group where placebos are administered; and, finally, the experimental group where the actual medications are administered. Only then under such stringent condition can we say the effectiveness of drugs is scientifically proven. Hence even if many people have tried and have shown the Chinese medications to be effective, it could still be placebos at work. That could be one of the reasons why Chinese medical science never really take off unlike their Western counterpart, since rigorous testing is never found necessary in Chinese history.

      The power of faith is very real and very powerful as you can see from the effects of placebos. Hence when you see, even with your own eyes, miraculous healing of any kind, don’t be too hasty in believing it and attributing it to some supernatural forces — qi4, gods or deities. I will give you a real case example to demonstrate my point.

      In USA, in the 80s, Reverend Peter Popoff was reputed, and he even demonstrated, to have divine healing power that he claimed to be inspired by god. However it was later discovered By James Randi, a psychic investigator, to be a hoax. Reverend Popoff actually had a radio receiver inserted in his ear to receive information from his wife. That was why he was able to tell offhand the names, backgrounds and illnesses of patients he never met before. The patients, of course, dumbfounded by his ‘extraordinary’ ability, subsequently placed their faith on him and got ‘miraculously’ cured. (Check out the following website: http://www.randi.org/jr/03-30-2001.html For more information)


      Allow me to quote the following as a stern reminder for us all:

      Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see.



      The appeal to popularity is somewhat similar to tradition, except the fallacy in this case is: if the majority of people believes or does it, it is unlikely to be wrong. No where and no other time was this fallacy greater exploited than by the infamous Adolf Hitler. He managed to delude a greater part of the German people into believing they were a superior race. He even wrote in a book called "My Diary", which read:


      The great mass of people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.

      Adolf Hitler

      Mein Kampf, vol. 1, ch. 10 (1925)

      However those who accept such unsound argument are sometimes just being rational and pragmatic, as John Kenneth Galbraith succinctly put it:

      (Bracket is mine)

      In any great [society] it is far, far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.

      John Kenneth Galbraith

      U.S. economist.

      Guardian (London, 28 July 1989).

      Today, in the world of advertising, this fallacy of appeal to popularity is being blatantly employed. Consider this humorous comic strip:

      Calvin : Nowadays, ads don’t just sell a product. They sell an attitude! Look at this one! Here’s a cool guy saying nobody tells him what to do. He does whatever he wants and he buys this product as a reflection of that independence.

      Hobbes : So basically, this maverick is urging everyone to express his individuality through conformity in brand-name selection?

      Calvin : Well, it sounded more defiant the way he said it.

      Hobbes : Hmm…

      Calvin and Hobbes

      by Bill Watterson, 1993

      In retrospect, the crowd is no expert, neither is tradition. A view is held by many and over a long period of time does not necessarily imply it must be correct; an argument that appeals to crowd and tradition is fallacious. There is no such thing as the ‘test of time’ or ‘proven system’, nor ‘wisdom of the masses’ or a Chinese idiom that goes: san1 ge4 chou4 pi2 jiang4, he2 cheng2 yi1 ge4 Zhu1 ge2 Liang2, which literally mean three cobblers with their wits combined equal Zhuge Liang, the brilliant military strategist. I will end this section with a quote extracted from Kahane and Cavender (1998, pp 291) to remind us not to accept our cherished beliefs and values uncritically.


      Germany has taught me that an uncritical view of the national past generated an equally subservient acceptance of the present.

      Hans Schmitt (who grew up in Nazi Germany)


5.5 Begging the Question

      The following is an example taken from Nolt (1984, pp 177),

      Author : The Bible is God’s word.

      Listener : What is your evidence?

      Author : In Number 36:13 we read, "These are the commandments and the judgements which the Lord commanded…" And what the scriptures say is surely true.

      Listener : But how do you know that what the scriptures say is surely true.

      Author : I know because God’s word would never be deceptive, and the Bible is God’s word.

      Listener : Well, but you see, that is just what I was trying to find out. How do you know that the Bible is God’s word.

      Author : I told you. In Number 36:133 we read…

      It does not take a genius to figure out that the argument is a merry-go-round. Such argument is in effect no argument at all. Before I ferret out the flaw of this argument, let me use another illustration to exemplify what it takes to beg the question.

      Song : Do you know why he is still a bachelor?

      Tan : No.

      Song : It’s because he is still a single.

      Stripped to its skeletal logic, the argument goes: He is unmarried, therefore he is unmarried; being bachelor is exactly equivalent to an unmarried man. Begging the question is when an argument whose some or all parts of its conclusion are used as reasons to support the very same conclusion. Put it is another way, it is also called tautology which means another way of saying exactly the same thing. He is a bachelor because he is still unmarried. The definition of bachelor is an unmarried man; the conclusion is used as reason to support the very conclusion. Back to the earlier example, it is not difficult to see it is a begging the question argument although you may have difficulties in nailing where exactly. Circular argument is an all time favourable among theologians because it can easily make less obvious by enlarging the circle of logical relationship so that most of us would be oblivious to fact that the argument actually start and end at the same point.


5.6 Causation versus Correlation (Questionable Cause)

Economist William Stanley Jevons (1875, 1884) discovered the uncanny statistical relation between sunspot cycle and business cycles which led him to develop his Sunspot theory. He hypothesised that the sunspot cycle led to a weather cycle which in turned caused a harvest cycle and thence a price cycle.

His contemporary economist, Henry Ludwell Moore (1923) went steps further by linking the causal chain the fluctuation in the business cycle on Earth all the way to the planet Venus.

Both are accomplished economist and statistician, yet their studies, despite statistically sound, seem far-fetched and cranky. It is crucial to be aware that correlation between phenomena does not necessitate causality between them. Lighting is often seen before thunder is heard; but that does not imply lighting causes thunder. The general consensus among philosophers and scientists to what constitutes causation are:

  1. Temporal precedence: The phenomenon takes place before or after another phenomenon in time; and
  2. Causal contiguity: There should be a connection between one phenomenon to another in a physical space.

Let’s consider another case. The following is an article by Amartye Sen (a Nobel Laureate in Economics, 1998):

In his article, "Human Rights and Asian values: What Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Peng don’t understand about Asia", Professor Sen rebuffed the claim by Lee Kuan Yew that Confucianism is an effective factor in promoting the economic success in Asia. Although there is, Prof Sen added, correlation between the more successful economies in Asia that are also traditionally imbued in Confucianism, the casual relationship between these two are at best tenuous. It is not that Lee Kuan Yew’s claim is wrong, but rather more research need to be done before any claim substantial can be made on the issue. Full Article

Another case of questionable cause:

Woman : Rape cases have risen considerably nowadays. I think this is due to the easy accessibility of pornographic materials via the Internet.

There is indeed an upsurge in rape cases as well as more people hooked-up to the Internet, but does that necessitate a causal relation? That may not be true. I can also argue:

  1. More women are aware of the law and their right nowadays; hence, these victims are more likely to lodge a report than before. (Awareness Factor)
  2. The social stigma of reporting rape is not as great as in the past. Victims of rape are less inhibited to lodge a report than before. (Cultural Factor)
  3. Women nowadays are more provocatively dressed than before; thus drew unnecessary attentions and also undesirable consequences. (Trend Factor)

There is a myriad of plausible causes that could have contributed the crime. Therefore we should not admit ourselves to inductive argument based only on inchoate suspicion.

5.7 False Dilemma

      Theologian : God is omnipotent and omniscient.

      Atheist : Are you saying god is capable of creating anything and accomplishing any feat according to his whim?

      Theologian : Of course!

      Atheist : Now you are contradicting yourself. Omnipotence is a logically impossible concept; it is not possible for him, say, to accomplish and create anything. Let’s take: Can god create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it. There is no way he can both create a rock he cannot lift, yet lift it.

      Theologian : …ur…oh! I am in rush now and…ur… will answer your question some other time.

      Deceptively convincing is the hallmark of false dilemma. Pared to its essential, the argument goes like: Either A or B; not B; therefore A. False dilemma erroneously reduces the number of possible alternatives or positions on an issue, thereby making it logically valid but furtively misleading. In the above example, the atheist has lured the theologian into a logically irreconcilable quicksand: There is no way he can both create a rock he cannot lift yet lift it. False dilemma is analogous to laying logical ambush and wait for the victim to get himself snared.

      One way of circumventing this fallacy is to avoid it altogether. Like in a quicksand, it is futile to struggle further as you will find yourself only deeper. Using the above example, some theologians, who are able to think critically, will counter by pointing out that god creates the concept of logic and god is not confined by it but transcends it. By finding an alternative other than the ones offer by your opponent is a sure way of countering false dilemma.

      Let’s take another example. In a previous argument put forward by my professor in my section, Faulty Analogy. He argued:

      Are you saying that we are fools or your departments never do a proper of revising the CPI, consumer price index?

      It is a clearly a false dilemma but quite a good one because I yet to come up a counter-argument to his.

      Remember the controversy surrounding one of President (Junior) Bush's speech after the September 11 tragedy : ""Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Hmm. . .what does that leave you if you are neither a fan nor nemesis of Bush?   Read More

      One more example before I wrapped up this session. See if you can spot the fallacy.

      Theologian : You again! What do you want this time?

      Atheist : You mentioned that God is both omnipotent and omniscient as well as all good.

      Theologian : I thought I've answered your question on "rock lifting"?

      Atheist : This has nothing to do with my earlier one. Since you said God is omnipotent - with the power of creating anything he wish - did he then create the concept of all good to represent himself?

      Theologian : Of course!

      Atheist : If that's the case, he could have arbitrarily chosen all evil instead?

      Theologian : He could not have because he is essentially good.

      Atheist : He would not or he could not? If he could not, you are implying the concept of goodness transcends the reach of God. And God has to conform himself to this concept despite his omnipotence. Then goodness is an immutable quality, with or without the approval of God, which also means he is not that omnipotent after all.

      Theologian : Sorry! Let me retract. What I meant was he would not.

      Atheist : If he would not, you are implying he could have chosen all evil, given his omnipotence; instead, he chose all good to face his creations, an arbitrary decision on his part.

      Theologian : No! Yes! No! I need to make a call to my professor in Logic...er..I mean..in theology.


5.8 Faulty Analogy

      Consider this argument put forward by a Singaporean MP (Member of Parliament) in 1993, not in verbatim:

      MP : I would like to assure you that there is really no marked inflation in Singapore, at least our CPI (Consumer Price Index) did not register any drastic change. The high inflation you think you perceived is merely due to your rising expectation, not the rising prices. Take for example, in the past, you would be contended if you can have Kunin fish for dinner. Due to the rising affluence nowadays, I think most of you would settle for more expensive fish. The perception of rising prices is due to your higher expectation for better things in life; that is, you attribute the higher price, when switching to a more expensive fish, as inflation when in reality the price for Kunin fish (the cheaper fish) did not change much.

      Read Full Story

      The above is an argument that uses an illustrative analogy. (I could not remember exactly the name of the fish he used, but the idea is there.) The MP, in appeasing Singaporeans, resorted the fish analogy to illustrate that the perceived inflation is merely due to our rising expectation. Before you concur heartily with his argument, listen to what I got to say about analogy.

      Illustrative analogy, as its name implies, only used for illustrative purpose and does not prove or corroborate one’s argument. It simplifies the explaining of a complex issue by drawing on a simpler and more intuitive example. The MP used the fish analogy to illustrate the point that our "expectation" is playing trick on our mind. In short, illustrative analogy does not argue, instead, they explain. Take another example:

      Boy : Can you explain how an atom looks like?

      Teacher : Well, first imagine a round football field. The distance between its electrons to its nucleus is something like a watermelon at the centre of the field with a ping-pong ball circulating round it at the edge of the field.

      Now, this is a clear case of an illustrative analogy.

      In refuting such argument, we do not attack the analogy but what the analogy is illustrating. The following is a refutation given by my Professor of Economics, NTU, not in verbatim:

      My Professor : It really contradicts the basic economic logic to attribute the perceived inflation as rising expectation. It will seem that we are such fools as not to realise the price difference between, let’s say, taking a bus from taking taxi is due to the premium charged for the comfort, convenient and speed a taxi can offer us. Rather, because of rising expectation, we prefer to take taxi now and attribute the higher cost as inflation. I really have difficulty in imagining it.

      Even if what he said is true and we did change our expectation without realising, the CPI should then register an increase. CPI is derived from a basket of goods and services commonly consumed in order to monitor the general price level. If our preference for the type of goods changes, the make-up of the CPI basket should change accordingly. For example, nowadays we consume more higher-grade rice, say, the Thailand rice, compared to our parents at their time; hence, it is logical that higher-grade rice should have a greater weight in our basket of goods. Only then will the CPI be a good representation of the current price level.

      To sum up, my professor argued it is either we are fools or something is inherently wrong with the CPI, consumer price index. It is a powerful punch pulled by him but not without its share of flaws — I will discuss them in another section, False Dilemma.

      Till now, I have only covered illustrative analogy. There is another type of analogy that argues as well as illustrates. It is called deductive analogy. Consider this:

      May : How could you? You should not be cruel to animal!

      Leo : So what if I am!

      May : Would you like others to treat you in this manner?

      Leo : Urr…I don’t think so.

      May : Since you don’t like others to treat you in this manner, you should not, by the same reasoning, treat animal in the same way.

      Leo : Oh yeah! I never thought of that. Well, I think you are right; I will not mistreat animal again.


      Deductive analogy, by definition, is slightly different from illustrative analogy. Let’s call an issue in debate, A, and a deductive analogy B. Before we can draw out the analogy B, there must be one or more similarities between A and B. Upon the deductive truth found in B, we then postulate it must equally be true in A. This postulation, however, required some leap of faith because it is neither deductive nor inductive. In the above example, there is some similarity between Leo's mistreatment of animals and Leo being mistreated by others; both are mistreatment. Since Leo would not like to be mistreated by others (a deductive truth found in the analogy), Leo should, by the same token, not mistreat animals (a postulation).

      The Achilles’ heel of such argument is to point out that the two cases are different and not really analogous. Leo can argue that animals and humans are inherently different; the latter can reason whereas the former cannot. And that is also the reason why we humans can consume animals for food but not another human being. Or put in another way, we can be carnivorous but not cannibalistic.


5.9 Faulty Induction or Generalisation

From a conversation with my friend, not in verbatim:

I : What do think of the coming election in Malaysia?

Friend : I think the party led by Anwar Ibrahim’s (the ex-deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia) wife will have a landslide victory.

I : What made you think that?

Friend : Well, according to my friends who are Malaysian, they told me they supported Anwar.

A skeletal logic breakdown:

Reason : Some Malaysians support Anwar.

Implicit Reason : Since some Malaysians support Anwar, it follows that most Malaysians support Anwar.

Claim : Most Malaysians support Anwar.

We generally make inductive generalisation of two types. One is about the physical phenomena around us. For example, we have never seen severe earthquakes nor any historical records reporting there have had ever been severe earthquakes in Singapore; hence, we induce that it is unlikely that severe earthquakes will occur in Singapore. Although not necessary true, it does make sound inductive argument. The other form of induction is about social behaviour and the example above belongs to this category; we will elaborate more on this.

Inductive generalisation of social behaviour is a generalised statement about a population given only a sample of it. In the above example, my friend, on hearing that all his Malaysian friends support Anwar (statement about sample), induced that most Malaysian should therefore support Anwar (statement about population). In making a sound inductive argument, you should as much as possible satisfy two conditions, they are:

  1. Is the sample size large enough to be a good representation of the population? And
  2. Is the sample unbiased or random?

When the sample size is large and unbiased, the inductive argument will be strong. One word of caution, inductive argument is either sound or unsound but never valid or invalid because there is always a possibility, despite how minute, for a sound argument to be wrong and an unsound one, right. Based on the conditions I have listed, the argument put forward by my friend is unsound since: Firstly, I doubt he has more than 20 Malaysian friends and a sample of 20 does not really represent a population of 20 million well. In addition, his Malaysian friends are mostly Chinese but Chinese only account for about 30-40% of the total population in Malaysia; hence, his sample is biased or not random. Nevertheless, aforementioned, his induction may be unsound, his claim could still be correct.

Let’s us take the argument a step further. If I try to counter-argue:

I : Hey! I have a Malaysian friend and he is not for Anwar, so what do you say about that.

My argument in this case is as unsound as my friend’s, if not worse. Bear in mind that one or two counter-examples or outlier (a jargon among statisticians) will not do a good job of refuting or substantiating any argument by induction. I am guilty of the same charge of making an unsound inductive argument. I will end this with a witty and satirical quote as follows:


Given a thimbleful of facts, we rush to make generalisations as large as a tub.

Gordor Allport (1954, pp 8)


5.10 Hasty Conclusion

      One of the common tactics employed by veteran arguer is to coerce or elicit his opponent into making hasty conclusion. Novice who thinks that he must answer a either "yes" or "no" on the spot to an issue in debate will make an easy prey. He, however, can extricate himself by replying:

      "The evidences you have adduced are insufficient to warrant the conclusion you demanded. More evidences are in need before I am convinced."

      "Look! I am no expert in this area and what I have been hearing so far are yours side of the argument. I need to check out contrary arguments put forward before I could conclude anything that I deem to be reasonable, fair and objective on the issue."

      "Hey! I may know little about the issue on hand, but that does not mean you can pull my leg. No way am I giving a "yes" or "no" before I hear from someone else other than you."

      I think you can think up some more of such replies.

5.11 Inconsistency or Double Standard

      Below is a conversation between a father and his son. The father is puffing away like a chimney while admonishing his son on the danger of smoking.

      Father : Look boy! Smoking is bad for health. Medical studies have shown that smoking increases the risk of having lung cancer, high blood pressure and many smoking-related illnesses. Son! Trust your Dad, don’t take up smoking.

      Son (Disbelief) : Oh really! You are also smoking yourself. You are contradicting yourself. Come on! Give me a break and don’t tell me what I should or should not do.

      Let’s consider the skeletal logic of the boy’s claim.

      Implicit Reason : If a person knows what is good for him, he surely must endorse it.

      Reason : Father did not give up smoking despite what he says about smoking.

      Claim : Therefore what father says about smoking is false.

      Did the father contradict himself by being inconsistent or by setting double standard? Strictly speaking, he did not. The father have put forward an argument not an opinion; an argument stands or falls on its own merits (see my section, Ad Hominem), totally independent of whether he smoke or not. Or, to put it in another way, his action is irrelevant to his argument. The implicit assumption made by the boy: "If a person knows what is good for him, he surely must endorse it" is irrelevant in this case. Despite the father action belies his words, his argument remains unscathed.

      However if a man’s action belies his words, although his argument remains intact, it does heavily undermine his credibility. Put yourself in the shoes of that boy, can you swallow what his father says about smoking when he is puffing away like a chimney? I think most likely not. Keep in mind that this is just a kind of psychological acceptability and has nothing to do with the strength of the argument.

      Take another example: Let’s say a priest or preacher who believes in the godliness of moral restrain, holiness of an austere lifestyle and sacredness of absolute continence. If you find out that he himself, however, hoards riches, indulges in orgies and, practises incest and sodomy; you might consider skipping all his future sermons. You accusation is valid this time round since he did not offer any argument but merely his personal opinion based on his spiritual experience on what it takes to be happy or go to heaven.

      Keep in mind, depending on whether it is an argument or opinion, the charge of inconsistency should be accurately applied.


5.12 Irrelevant Reason/Premises

      From The Straits Times, 1998, not in verbatim:

      A man was killed by a spray gun used during a routine stray-dog elimination operation. When asked the causes, the spokesman of the respective Ministry replied, "This is an unfortunate accident. The Ministry has always ensured utmost precautions during all operations. The spray gun we are using is of the type most commonly used by developed countries…"

      What the spokesman had said maybe absolutely true but also absolutely irrelevant, since the question asked was why the man was killed during the operation. Using Irrelevant reasons or premises are a form of psychological distraction, which is to introduce true but irrelevant issues into a discussion. It is also known as red herring. This name was derived from the old practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs. It’s now refers to something that distract attention from the real issue. One sure way to counter this is to ask back the opponent: "Can you explain exactly how your argument proves your claim?" Or, "Can you explain how your claim followed logically from the reasons you gave?"

      From The Straits Times, 1997, not in verbatim:

      The Singapore Straits Times reported that Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) implemented a new system of rewarding its staff by tying their bonuses to the amount of tax collected. Not surprisingly, that drew criticism from the public. Our Finance Minister, in response, said the Iras does not set the tax rates and "I don't think you should read too much into it."  Read More

      It still amazes me that how one could have kept his post by making statement as such. Anyway, the minister did not answer the public's query — does it make sense to tie bonuses to the absolute amount of tax revenue collected? The public have nothing against the taxmen from getting fatter bonuses but their bonuses should be tied to performance or efficiency, especially important for a non-profit organisation. For example, previously, for every dollar collected, the cost was 30 cents that went into administration cost, expenses and so on; now, for every dollar collected, the cost is 15 cents. There is an improvement in the taxman's efficiency; hence justifies his bonuses. Instead, the minister gave an irrelevant reply and, of course, that did not appease the public. The minister should address the question: why tying bonuses to tax revenue is justified. It could be, I am surmising, that in order to sift out tax evaders, it demands extraordinary efforts and skills on the part of a taxman. And this will be ultimately reflected in an increase of the Iras' coffers. This reply, although not very plausible, addresses correctly the concern of the public.


5.13 Lack of Contrary Evidence

      (Bracket is mine)

      Read [and listen] not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.

      Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

      English philosopher, lawyer, and statesman

      Essays "Of Studies" (1625)

      Before making important decision of anything, if you are not too constraint by time and resources, it is judicious to check out the contrary evidences for an argument, so that you will have a more balanced view of the issue. Let me use the analogy of a court trial to illustrate my point.


      Let’s say a man is accused of a crime and he is being trial. In court, there is the prosecutor, defense attorney and the judge. For argument sake, if the judge only get to hear the prosecutor’s side of the story, the judge will definitely find his arguments and evidences adduced are logical, coherent and consistent, and the accused should be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, if the judge get to hear the defense attorney’s argument as well, the judge may find the prosecutor’s argument compelling, but the defense attorney’s also equally compelling. The judge then will have to weight and consider all arguments and evidences before arriving at a verdict. Although, that does not guarantee his verdict always come out correct, it is, nevertheless, fair and objective.

      Lastly, I will end this section with an aphorism of mine.

      You may not get to meet the Truth, but by being fair and objective you are nearer to her.

5.14 Questionable Statistics

      There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

      Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881)

      British statesman and novelist

      Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfilment.

      Jean Baudrillard

      French semiologist

      Cool Memories, ch. 4 (1987; tr. 1990)


      Figures don’t lie, but liar figure.

      Old Saying


      Statistics will prove anything, even the truth.

      Noël Moynihan (1916–1994)

      British doctor and writer

      Some not so admiring remarks about statistics. Being involved in economic research myself, I am well aware of the possibility of manipulating statistics to suit one need. Statistics are merely figures, but how one interpret these figure can vary drastically. Hence, it is not uncommon that statistics can be used to support both statistics can be used to support both side of a dispute.

      The following is conversation I overheard in a library.

      Mother A : Hey! Did you read yesterday newspaper? A recent statistical study was done and has shown that tuition does not really improve the grades of students.

      Mother B : Is that so?

      Mother A : And that study was done by some professors in NUS.

      Mother B : Oh! If that is the case, there must be some truth in it.

      Hmm…some truth in it. It is interesting to note that both of them or most of us never question the validity of such study. Is the sample collected large enough and random? (See my section on Faulty Induction.) Are the methodologies used in the study correct? Have any other similar studies done on this area? Etceteras. Humans, psychologically, are easily awe-struck by awesome figures. In fact economist Lester C. Thurow was fully aware of this problem and aptly prescribed us with the following advice,

      (Brackets are mine)

      [Statistics] results should not be given great weight unless similar results are produced by different [statisticians] using different techniques, different control variables, different models, and different data sets over an extended period of time.

      Lester C Thurow, (1983, pp 121)

      Another misguided form of statistics is what I call as unknowable statistics. Below is from my recollections of some newspaper articles. Since it is recollected, the figures might be wrong, but the idea is there.

      A spokesman for an anti-piracy group, Business Software Alliance (BSA), said about $23 billions is lost every month to software piracy.

      Every minute, 6 persons died of smoking-related illnesses in the world.

      Extracted from Barry and Soccio (1988, pp 149),

      By 1995 every person in the United States will personally know someone who has AIDS.

      It is beyond the widest imagination on how exactly they managed to compile that kind of statistics. Despite whatever best of intentions they may have, a questionable statistics is always a questionable statistics. In the first case, piracies are supposedly illicit, covert affairs or they would not be called piracies in the first place. How on earth did they come up with US $23 Billions? Whereas in the second case, the question befuddles us is how did they conjure up that kind of figure. The amount of time and resources to come up a figure for US alone is already insurmountable, let alone the whole world. It is difficult to imagine populous developing nations like India and China really have good and reliable numbers to begin with. In the last case, how, have you ever wondered, did they manage to extrapolate that by 1995 every person in the United States will personally know someone who has AIDS? This information-haunted world is flooded with statistics to undergird arguments of any kind. So be wary when you come across such dubious figures and not let that affect your judgments.


5.15 Slippery Slope or Absurd Extrapolation

      From a seminar by Prof De Eduard Jan Bomhoff, at Nanyang Technological University, 14th Oct 1998:

      During the Asian economic crisis, many prominent bankers and politician alike warned the contagion affect of the Asian crisis will lead to a world-wide economic depression if IMF does not bail out the debt-ridden countries in time.

      Prof Bomhoff rebuffed these claims as slippery slope argument. He added that the argument is untenable but rational when consider their self-interest. By clamouring that crisis can spread, bankers get the IMF to bail out the ailing countries with the bulk of the bailout fund go back to the bankers themselves. As for the politicians, what better way is for them to get subsidised loans than from the gullible IMF.

      Slippery slope or absurd extrapolation argument means if a certain step is taken or a position maintained, it will ineluctably set off a chain of events that ultimately lead to an undesirable end. Or, it can be literally explained as a person taking the wrong step will find himself tumbling down the slippery slope. Most often, people never clearly and adequately justify or establish how by taking one action can trigger off the chain of events; therefore, such arguments seem tenuous at best. In the above example, the politicians and bankers did not explain how the Asian crisis, if not contained, will lead to a world-wide catastrophe. Indeed, people who rely on such argument pander to the undesirability of the consequences so as to psychologically persuade others to their argument. No one would like to see a world-wide economic slump; therefore, it is better to take the preventive measure of bailing out the debt-ridden countries than to cure a world depression.

      Take another case that I overheard on the train:

      Man : I think it is about time that Singapore legalises pornography.

      Woman : Oh! That will be unthinkable. Proliferation of pornography will corrupt our children, perverse our moral values and, finally, disintegrate the very social fabric which holds our nation together. Violence and sexual crime against women and children will inevitably increase. I don’t think you will make such remark if you think about the consequences.

      The lady, for one, has a formidable imagination, but her story is difficult to justify. Incidentally, in American, there are no conclusive evidences hitherto to link pornography with crimes. Look around you, you will have no difficulty of finding arguments as such.


5.16 Strawman

      Overheard in a conversation in my school canteen:

      Woman : I believe in the healing power of Qigong (the ancient Chinese art of healing).

      Man : Come on! That has yet to be scientifically proven!

      Woman : Well…there are a lot of things in this world cannot be explained by science.

      When confronted by an opposing view or an argument unfavourable to us, we easily succumb to using strawman argument. Strawman argument is used to misrepresent your opponent position by considering only its weakest position and assaults that and that only. Most of the time, by carefully avoiding head-on clashes with your adversary’s main argument can get you a cheap victory.

      In the above example, the woman deliberately take on the weakest component of the man’s argument: Science hitherto cannot explains all thing, and stealthily ducked head-on clashes with the main thrust of his argument: that yet to be scientifically proven. Science is based on rationality and objectivity in its search for truth, and is the surest path till now to knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Science, however, does not mean infallible or external truth. A scientist formulate his hypothesis according to what nature has presented to him through his senses and with his hypothesis, and he will proudly challenge Nature to prove him wrong. If indeed he is proven wrong, the humble empiricist is back to his drawing board again. So when something is not scientifically proven, it is either not enough research is being done on the subject or we believe in it merely on the basis of our faith.


5.17 Two Wrongs Make a Right

From an internet newsgroup, by a guy claimed to be a japanese:

japanese : I don’t understand why you people kick up so much fuss about the atrocities and war crimes we committed during WW2. In the history of any culture, race or nation, atrocities, hundred time far worse than the ones we committed, were not uncommon. Many other nations have afflicted damages and sufferings on the Chinese people, but why you keep picking on us only?

An all too familiar hackneyed argument by these unremorseful japanese. The fallacy of Two Wrongs Make a Right is an argument that attempts to justify what is wrong by appealing to other same instances. That japanese tries to justify his country’s bestial act by referring to other similar acts committed by others. He is guilty of making a Two Wrongs Make a Right fallacy. Incidentally, the sufferings afflicted by japan on China during the World War Two were the worst compared to by any other nations. 10 millions Chinese, mostly civilians, died during that war. 

When an action is considered wrong, it is wrong, regardless of whomever has committed it. If, for example, you think that stealing is inherent wrong and yet you steal, you cannot justify, mitigate or explain away your actions by arguing many of your friends also steal.

Take another example, the following is a debate between a Christian friend and I:

I : Ah…Christians are no better than the Muslims. Look! During the riot in Indonesia, many Mosques were reportedly set ablaze by Christians.

A Christian friend : Hey! It’s the Muslims that started all these by burning Churches in the first place.

Incidentally, although not a Christian myself, I can still quote from King James Bible, John 8:7, which read:

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

King James Bible, John 8:7.

My Christian friend has undoubtedly committed the fallacy of Two Wrongs Make a Right.

I will sum up this section with an apt quote as follows.


Two wrongs don’t make a right but they make a good excuse

Thomas Szasz (1920–)

U.S. psychiatrist and writer

The Second Sin (1973)

Actually I think "a lousy excuse" is more appropriate. Below is an addition example, which is taken from a letter I wrote to The Straits Times' mailbag but not published. The letter is in response to an article written by an ignorant whiteman:


It is not about the grudge but the gag about the past.


I read with interests Mr Peter Sidwell’s letter,"How long must a grudge last?’ (ST, Dec 7, 1998)

Mr Sidwell, in his letter, argued that he could not understand why the grudge persisted till today when most of the Japanese war criminals were either hanged and those were not have died or will soon. He even analogised to whether the English should also demand an apology from the French because William of Normandy shoot King Harold in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One does need an exceptional imagination in order to relate Battle of Hastings with that of Japan’s wartime aggression toward China. The latter event can be vividly recounted by my parent right down to the most chilling details compares to the former which I am doubtful that Mr Sidwell can even trace his ancestors then. Or, perhaps, the estimated 20 millions Chinese (half of which were civilians) killed by Japan wartime aggression is not much different in its importance from the death of King Harold. Making such a comment does show Mr Sidwell’s knowledge of historical and current affairs leave a lot to be desired.

No Chinese would like to live in the shadow of their horrible past and, like everyone else, to get on with their lives. But what baffled and saddened them was the persistent Japanese refusal to come to terms with its own past and remain adamantly gag about the whole issue to their own people (especially the new generation of Japanese). All these are clearly demonstrated by:

The Japanese enshrining their war criminals in the heart of Tokyo—an act equivalent to erecting a cathedral for Hitler in the middle of Berlin.

The Japanese systematically erasing and censoring of important historical information about WW2 in textbooks, which results in the entire Japanese education system suffers from selective amnesia.

The Japanese rightwing extremists and ultra-nationalists have along denying the irrefutable facts of their past aggression and atrocities; they even go to the extent of rationalising their past war-efforts were actually to liberate Asia from the grip of Western imperialism.

All the above together with the recent refusal of giving a written apology to China has clearly shown Japan’s attitude towards her past. All these will inevitably reinforce suspicions that Japan in trying to obliterate from memory the history of their aggression is to lay the basis for reviving militarism in the younger generation. By being gag about the past will only serve to deepen the grudge.

Ultimately, I hope time will heal all wounds but I believe some scars will remain always. I will end this with an immortal warning from George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.




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