On sophistry

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, sophistry – the kind of crooked thinking that uses logical fallacy and deception to make an argument seem stronger – what is its nature, and how best does one indentify it?

On sophistry

By: Gareth van Onselen

20 February 2012

When assessing weak argument it is helpful to distinguish between that which, despite the best efforts of its proponent, is poorly constructed and so fails logically, and that which, precisely because of an intention to deceive on the part of its proponent, is specious and misleading but equally unsound. The former is regrettable, if not understandable; the latter, less so – for its purpose is deliberately to manipulate reason and an audience in turn, and so it deserves a harsher response.

Today our public discourse is awash with bad thinking. When the general standard is low in this way, it is far easier for those who abuse logic to cloak their deception within a thicker fog. At best, it is overlooked entirely, mistaken perhaps for a moment of clarity (for it has the appearance of cogency); at worst, dismissed as part of a broader malaise.

Often it is difficult to measure intent and gauge the extent to which one has consciously attempted to delude another but the guardians of good reason have a duty to reveal sophistry’s true nature if meaningful debate is to be promoted and protected.

Ironically, a key indicator of deceptive reasoning is not the misuse of language or grammar – a sophist is not a fool – but their position, and to ask of it two things: Is it one easily defensible, supported by evidence and grounded in reason; and, how attached is its proponent to it?

On interrogation it might well hold firm, the product of intelligent thought, but often their argument is an over-extension, the result of crooked thinking and a deep-seated emotional attachment to the irrational – so much so, that is has subjugated the rational to its will.

There are formal logical fallacies worth inculcating when walking through the fog. They require a certain rigor to identify, and an awareness – that not every debater necessarily has an honest outcome at heart.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. This column first appeared in the Business Day.