Four kinds of Wrongness

11 January, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given the title of the blog, I feel like I should start with a bit of a taxonomy of wrongness. For no other purpose than to be able to refer to it in the future.

An argument can be wrong in one or more of the following four ways.

First, and most trivially, it can be wrong grammatically. An argument that does not have basic grammar (since I’m a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist I mean “can be parsed by a native speaker.”) In that case, the rest of the argument doesn’t really matter: it’s not parseable to a native speaker, so it’s just wrong in a purely functional sense. This sort of wrongness generally isn’t worth commenting on.

The next three modes of wrongness are actually independent from each other.

Second, an argument can base itself on the wrong assumptions. For instance, if you are making an argument for increased defense spending, and you start with the assumption that the US spends less on its military than any of its neighbors, you would be wrong in your bases and assumptions.

Third, you can be wrong in your argumentation. This means that, even if we take your basic assumptions as fact, you pursue a spurious argumentation about them, where you assume that those facts imply things that they in fact do not imply. Often the argumentation will be quite muddled. If we are being generous with the author, we can say that this is because their thinking was muddled. Another possibility is that the author is intentionally attempting to befuddle the reader. An example of this kind of wrongness is “English has 10 different words for snow and thus it is suited to people in cold and snowy climates.” The “and thus” simply does not follow, regardless of how many words English has for snow or whether or not it’s suited for cold and snowy climates.

Fourth, your conclusions can be wrong. This is relatively trivial: at the end of your argument, the point you are trying to make is, in fact, incorrect.

Something which I find particularly fascinating is that these three kinds of wrongness are often at a disjoint from each other. For instance, it is perfectly possible to have the correct bases, correct form of argumentation, and draw totally incorrect conclusions* (often such writing is really rewarding to read: I call it “wrong but thought provoking.) Also, you might reach a correct conclusion from from incorrect bases and incorrect argumentation: this is often the case when the author knows what the right answer is, but isn’t sure how to get there or from where. All sorts of other crazy mixes are possible as well.

One important thing is that a lot of these, particularly those that are correct in some aspect, can still be important learning experiences for the reader, especially if we notice and note when things are wrong. Wrong writing is not without value, as long as we don’t fall into the relativist trap of “anything could wrong or right so it doesn’t matter.”

* In a formalistic logic sense, this isn’t possible, but there are so many examples in the real world that it’s worth mentioning.

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