Rumack: Can you fly this plane and land it?
Striker: Surely you can’t be serious?
Rumack: I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
Airplane, 1980

It’s natural to want to build consensus. We’re all guilty of sometimes assuming that what we think is true or reasonable will be thought true and reasonable by everybody else. Often though, what we decide is true is just wishful thinking. Sometimes this is simply lazy thinking, sometimes it’s bullshit.

I’ve written before on how to spot and avoid bullshit: it’s a fine line between calling bullshit and applying the principle of charity. A good rule of thumb for anyone setting out an argument is to be as clear, precise and economical as is possible. We can’t always avoid ambiguity, but the easier it is for others to follow our thoughts the better. But we can’t rely on others to do our thinking for us, or even to spot all the assumptions in their own logic. Spotting weaknesses in arguments is a fundamental of critical thinking and any tools we can find to make this easier should be welcomed.

Daniel Dennett’s third tool for better thinking is what he refers to as ‘the surely klaxon’:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.

Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.) Being at the edge, the author has had to make a judgment call about whether or not to attempt to demonstrate the point at issue, or provide evidence for it, and – because life is short – has decided in favour of bald assertion, with the presumably well-grounded anticipation of agreement. Just the sort of place to find an ill-examined “truism” that isn’t true!

I’m as guilty of peppering my writing with surelys and obviouslys as anyone. Likewise, I’m prone to clearlys and naturallys. Skimming though my last book I found a couple of different types of surely which might be worth analysing. Most often I tend to use them as a rhetorical trick to highlight the wrongness of a way or thinking or point of view.:

I’ve come to understand that the way I was taught to approach teaching was based on a set of contested assumptions. Inspectors would punish schools and teachers who didn’t teach this way because not teaching this way obviously meant that you were a bad teacher. Deep down, I knew that much of what I was doing was shallow, short term and trivial – surely it’s wrong that I could train a barely literate child to pass their English language GCSE? But this was what the system demanded and I got good at it. (Pg 92)

But sometimes I do use it as a dubious marker of certainty. In this extract I’m arguing the dangers of providing praise when we want students to improve their work:

Praise can be particularly negative when pupils begin to fail or struggle to understand what’s being taught. One study noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that “premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions”. But surely all this suggests is that praise should be separated from feedback. It makes sense that making a value judgement (praise) could have a negative impact on pupils’ likelihood to act on information on how to improve (feedback). Why should they improve their work if it has been praised? As Hattie says, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message”. (Pg. 330)

Was I right to assume that the rightness of separating praise from feedback was a sure and certain fact? I’m no longer sure that the case I’ve presented is iron-clad. In support I’ve offered my own explanation about why this might be a problematic approach and cited a well-known authority to lend my opinions weight. This is certainly not proof and an astute reader should notice a potential weakness in my line of reasoning.

Another useful tell for potentially weak arguments is the word ‘fact’ or the phrase, “It’s a fact that…” If someone has to inform you something is a fact we ought to be suspicious. Most acknowledged facts don’t need pointing out as such, but if we’re feeling particularly dogmatic about some of our opinions, why not claim they’re more than that? Anyone can spruce up a bald assertion by simply claiming it’s a fact. It might be, but, well, it’s probably not.

This isn’t a tool for highlighting others’ sloppy thinking and then publicly calling them on it – obviously*, you could do that, but then you’d be in breach of the principle of charity – it’s a tool for privately considering why we might profitably disagree. It’s a crowbar to pry open cracks in an argument, to let in some light in order to see whether what the writer assumed was sure really was.

Next up is #4, answering rhetorical questions.

* This one is deliberate.