CokeSpeak: "A sophisticated form of language, containing half-truths dissembled as common sense. Its objective is to deceive the listener, usually for profit".

Crooked Arguments

Crooked Arguments

“My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist!” – Charles Baudelaire: The Generous Gambler, 1869

It’s Only Common-Sense …

The central objective of the crooked argument phase is to make clear that the CokeSpeaker is talking obvious common sense. He is ‘everyman’, on the Clapham Omnibus. And this is the first clue that a CokeSpeaker is operating – the attempt to apply a common sense, seemingly straightforward justification to a complex scientific issue. (Hint: all scientific issues are complex, more so than we imagine).

He may claim industry or scientific credentials, but the CokeSpeaker is not speaking to a scientific audience but rather to the wider public. This is not the simple truisms or slogans we have examined up to now, but a well-crafted, apparently logical line of reasoning intended to prove (or disprove) some original proposition or premise.

The desired end result is always the same: that we consumers do nothing, change nothing, challenge nothing, and carry on obediently getting busy with the fizzy. In moderation of course, as part of a balanced diet…

This is the form of CokeSpeak most commonly seen in the ‘letters to the editor’ sections of newspapers and journals, or in Big Food PR ‘instant rebuttal’ (damage limitation) pieces, where a swift response is required to an unfriendly research paper, opponent’s media interviews, or a government policy debate. Simple truisms or slogans, whilst often included, would be insufficient in this context, even though a truism on its own could be viewed as a self-contained crooked argument.

With a little practice, all but the most sophisticated CokeSpeakers are easy to spot, and the sophisticated ones are rare beasts indeed. There are 10 crooked argument tactics that re-appear time after time and once you can spot these, then you are (almost) a qualified CokeSpeakHound, But first, a little background on crooked arguments, and 2 books on the topic that will look good on your bookshelf!

The latest edition of Straight & Crooked Thinking” by RH & CR Thouless (first published in 1930, and recently updated) offers up 37 commonly used dishonest tricks of argument (and how to refute them). If it is possible for a ‘list’ to be entertaining, this is certainly that list. However, it’s unlikely that any of us have the time or inclination to measure potential CokeSpeak against 37 separate criteria especially if we are to debunk it swiftly. At the opposite end of the scale, in his book “The Art of Clear Thinking” (Collier, 1962), Dr Rudolf Flesch suggests we need something simpler. He proposes that just two methods will suffice to first locate, and then refute, a crooked argument:

  • The reasoning makes an irrelevant point. Remedy: so what?
  • The reasoning ignores a relevant point. Remedy: specify the points ignored.

It transpires that almost all of Thouless’ 37 tricks, and the associated rebuttals or remedies do indeed fall into one of these two classes. Both Thouless and Flesch concentrate their efforts on distortions (or absence) of logic – whereas CokeSpeakers’ techniques make common use of emotional language to gain compliance. With some prescience, Thouless’ crooked arguments contain the core structure of CokeSpeak:

  • #20: Overcoming resistance to a doubtful proposition by a preliminary statement of a few easily accepted ones
  • #21: Statement of doubtful proposition in such a way that it fits in with the thought habits or prejudices of the hearer

Here is Alice’s list of the Top-Ten crooked arguments, together with her remedies for dealing with these when you encounter them. But beware – CokeSpeakers are usually none too anxious to engage in serious debate about their remarks, especially so with those of us who recognise them for what they are.

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