Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Bad Thoughts, by Jamie Whyte

Jamie Whyte is a London-based philosopher from New Zealand, who has branched out of lecturing in ivory towers and become involved in assisting banks and other companies in thinking correctly. There can hardly be a more important issue that avoiding ‘Bad thoughts’ – by which he means lines of thinking that are incorrect, not morally ‘bad’.

The last sentence of the book expounds his message well: “Separating intellectual from moral seriousness is harder than those who are intellectually frivolous may care to admit’.

His book is a crusade against intellectual frivolity, and an appeal for logic and seriousness. He exposes many ways in which we are falsely persuaded, and gives many current examples (at least current from when the book was published in 2003). He is not exposing persuasion techniques as Cialdini does in his excellent book ‘Influence’. He analyses how we can be fooled by false authority, prejudice, empty words, logical inconsistency, begging the questions, misleading use of statistics and so forth.

It is a short (152 pages) book, pithy and well-argued. I liked the subtly large font and well-spaced layout that made it easy to read. I enjoyed his style and commended his logical arguments, realising much sloppiness and over-tolerance in my own approach to debates. One can see that he is correct.

Whyte is particularly persistent in destroying religious arguments, using relentless logic, a process which is quite amusing. His personal sceptical / atheistic views on these matters comes through clearly.

However, would you want to be on the Trans-Siberian express with this man for two weeks? That is a test I mentally apply to authors, and the answer in this case is not an emphatic yes. He is clearly very intelligent and has a wide range of interests – so he would be a lively companion. During those two weeks together we might be able to bring my woolly and contradictory views into some sort of logical order. However, his belief in logic and science seems to have its limitations. The self-contradictory statements of logic discovered by Goedel, and the irresolvable moral dilemmas highlighted by Baggini are beyond the scope of this book, and possibly his philosophical sphere. There seems to be a hard edge to his analysis of things, which is excellent, but might not make him a comfortable and agreeable companion in a railway carriage.

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