I’ve written before about mental shortcuts called heuristics – rules of thumb that help us make a great majority of our decisions. Most of the time they work brilliantly. We recognize patterns subconsciously and make smart decisions automatically. Our conscious brain is free to deal with more difficult tasks. It’s like automatic pilot or highway hypnosis.
While heuristics help us get through the day, they can also make serious mistakes. (For a catalog of mistakes, click here, here, here, and here). It’s a fairly long list and surely most of us have made most of them. The more we’re aware of our heuristics, the more we can teach ourselves to avoid the errors inherent in automatic thinking. We can learn how to not trick ourselves.
But what about when someone else tries to trick us? Just like heuristics, the tools of disputation can lead us to believe things that just aren’t true (or disbelieve things that are true). You can always look to the evidence but you may be presented with evidence that’s biased or simply wrong. However, just as you can learn to recognize the ways that you deceive yourself, you can also learn to recognize the ways others deceive you.
Peter Facione can identify 17 ways in which our own heuristics can deceive us. On the other hand, Richard Paul and Linda Elder can identify 44 “foul ways to win an argument”. Surely the fact that there are so many more ways to deceive others (as opposed to ourselves) indicates that humans are innately devious. We’re not to be trusted.
Over time, I plan to catalog all 44 methods of deception so we can compare the ways we trick others to the ways we trick ourselves. I wonder which causes which. Do others deceive us or do they simply confirm our own self-deceptions?
So, where to start? Well, I’ve already slipped the first one by you. It’s what I call the handily hidden assumption and is often preceded by the word “surely”. When a person says, “Surely you believe…” or “Surely we can agree…”, it’s time to suspect trickery. The person is trying to hide an assumption so you won’t question it. The conclusion may flow logically from the assumption, but the assumption may be fatally flawed. If you ignore the assumption, the argument may sound logical and convincing.
In logic, this is known as begging the question. In common parlance, we often use begging the question to mean raising the question. In fact, however, it means exactly the opposite. It really means that the question goes begging. The question of whether the assumption is correct goes begging. Nobody pays it the respect it deserves.
So be careful when you’re debating a point with a slippery sophist. Or, for that matter, when you’re reading my website. And don’t call me surely.