Can two and two ever make five?

Bad reasoning is behind the hunt for the worst argument in Britain, reports Melanie Newman

December 18, 2008

An academic is on the hunt for Britain's worst argument in a bid to show his students just how bad some people's reasoning can be.

Dave Webster, course leader in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire, is especially interested in contributions originating in politics and the media.

Entries are already flooding in to the blog he has set up (see http://r-p-e.blogspot.com/2008/12/britains-worst-argument.html).

"It's an exercise I've done a few times with first-year undergraduates," Dr Webster said. "We go through newspapers and look for examples of fallacies and particularly bad arguments. This shows the students how much flawed reasoning there is out there - it's not just them in their essays. I thought it would be fun to use the blog to find some examples from a wider range of sources."

The competition has already brought some surprising contributions. "Some of the porters have written in with arguments they've had with their suppliers about screw sizes," Dr Webster revealed. "Quite a lot of the examples relate to religion, and we've had a few anonymous contributions, which I suspect have come from departmental meetings."

One example from the hundreds already sent to the blog is: "6,000 people died as a direct result of drinking last year, 4,000 people died as a direct result of driving last year, 500 people died as a direct result of drink-driving last year, therefore drink-driving is safer than either drinking or driving alone."

Another example was the argument that: "It is imperative that we should not do bad things; chocolate is, broadly speaking, a good thing; therefore, not eating chocolate is a bad thing; therefore, it is imperative that we should not not eat chocolate. Conclusion: We must eat chocolate."

As long ago as 1985, an Australian philosopher, David Stove, ran a competition to find the worst argument in the world. In his marking scheme, half the marks went to the degree of flaw in the argument, half to the degree of its endorsement by philosophers.

He awarded the prize to himself, for the following argument: "We can know things only as they are related to us under our forms of perception and understanding in so far as they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves."

Entries for the current competition can be posted on the comment section of the blog or sent to Dr Webster at: dwebster@glos.ac.uk. The best will be published on the blog at the end of January 2009.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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