The now former housing minister Grant Shapps recently came up with an imaginative putdown to Labour shadow housing minister Jack Dromey’s accusation that he consistently misrepresented and misused data about the housing market.
Dromey damned Shapps by stating that he believed his “casual attitude to accuracy is not only confusing to the public but is obstructing genuine public debate”. He claimed that some of the statistics Shapps used were “factually incorrect or deliberately misleading”.
In response Shapps argued that not only did Dromey’s government fail to build more homes, despite the apparent good times, but they actually introduced programmes designed to destroy entire neighbourhoods.
“Their housing market renewal programme bulldozed 10,000 homes, whilst only replacing 1,000. So just to be clear, no-one did more to destroy our nation’s homes since the Luftwaffe bombs of World War II,” he said.
Hell hath no fury like a Shapps scorned. And reading Madsen Pirie’s book, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, you quickly realise what a master Shapps is at using logic and fallacies – any statement or claim passed off as something it’s not – to win his arguments.
Let’s take the Shapp’s Luftwaffe bombing comment as an example. According to Pirie’s guide, this appears to come under the category of abusive analogy where, instead of the arguer being insulted directly, an analogy is drawn that is calculated to bring him into scorn or disrepute.
In no way has Labour’s track record on housing been like the Luftwaffe – it was as disinterested and useless when it came to tackling the UK’s housing needs as the Tories have been. But by making a subtle fallacy it works its magic.
Pirie’s book works as a compendium of exactly these types of devilish techniques that are clearly effective at winning arguments.
Standouts include poisoning the well – discrediting the opposition before they have uttered a single word, with “Everyone except an idiot knows that not enough money is spent on education” being a good example. The statement “As every schoolboy knows” is useful for making people feel stupid very quickly. The impressive-sounding “Baculum, argumentum ad” is actually where you introduce force as a means of persuasion – a good example being: “It would be better if you told us what we want to know; we wouldn’t want your aged mother to suffer, would we?”
Pirier is clearly a seriously smart chap – he’s president of the Adam Smith Institute and author of a number of books on boosting your IQ or becoming a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. And the large amounts of Latin he employs as well as his considerable knowledge of all forms of logic and argument quickly make you feel dumb.
But where he brings it back is his style, which is light and humorous.
The list format of the book – it is literally a compendium of 90-odd forms of argument, with little to bind it all together – can get repetitive.
But if you’re finding yourself wrong-footed at work by a colleague who says stupid things that you know are wrong but feel unable to pick apart adequately, this is the book for you. It’s also a good insight into how politicians such as Shapps are effective at winning arguments, if nothing else.