Reductio ad Absurdum

(“Reduction to the absurd”)

A form of argument which exaggerates the other side’s case to absurdity, and then argues against it. It is effective because, even though it is obviously absurd, it implies that your opponents’ actual argument is no less absurd, and that she has not thought through the reality. It can very effectively remove any danger of the argument getting somewhere. This is similar to the Straw Man, except that it takes particular delight in exploring the ludicrous extreme.

However, reductio ad absurdum can also be used as a means of constructive simplification to make a point. While many principles in economics textbooks are grossly oversimplified with children’s-storybook examples, it is also true that they can clarify some of the fundamental economic relationships: e.g., stories about Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, or about a person whose shopping list contains just two items—apples and pears, or cummerbunds and kumquats. The trouble is, some people who learn their economics in an engaging scale-model landscape find it hard to leave it. The models of great beauty and complexity which emerge can confirm the richly-misleading potential of absurd assumptions (Economism). Example of a useful reductio ad absurdum: the discussion of “2+2=4” in Distraction.


Related entries:

Fallacies, Slippery Slope, Hyperbole.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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