Straight and Crooked Thinking, by Robert H. Thouless

Cover of 1953 Pan Book issue of 'Straight and Crooked Thinking'
Robert Thouless’ little book, Straight and Crooked Thinking, has been considered a classic guide to ferreting out untruths, half-truths, and other distortions of facts in political and social discussions since it was first published in 1932. It’s been reissued at least a half-dozen times since, most recently in 1990 by Hodder Arnold. But from then until April 2011, it was out of print and copies on Amazon started at $27.00–for what was at most a $2 paperback.

Although there are many other texts on applying logic to argument, Straight and Crooked Thinking remains one of the most succinct and practically-applicable books ever written. One blogger named it as his favorite book of all time, describing it as “a concise work of supreme genius.”

One of the strengths of Thouless’ discussion of various argumentative fallacies is his recognition of the significant role that emotions play in our responses to them. As a psychologist, he doesn’t believe that logic alone is likely ever to win an argument or even budge a skeptical listener. Here, for example, is a short passage from the opening chapter on the use of emotionally-charged words:

Psychology is still a young science and the clearing away from it of emotional words has not gone very far. ‘Passion’, ’emotion’, ‘sex’ are all terms which carry strong emotional meanings, so that it is difficult to discuss a controversial matter in psychology without using words which rouse strong emotions and confuse all issues. Yet there is a psychology of the laboratories which is scientific and tries to use its terms as factually and unemotionally as they are used in any other science, A prominent educational psychologist has said: “When I say that a child is intelligent, I am describing him and not praising him.” In other words, he is using the term ‘ intelligence’ in a factual and emotionally neutral way.

The difficulty of this use is that he cannot be sure that his hearer will also understand it in that way. So emotional neutrality can often be obtained more easily if we stop using the terms of ordinary speech which have accumulated emotional meanings and replace them by new terms which we have invented ourselves and can define as we like. Thus Spearman made it more easy to think about intelligence without being confused by emotional irrelevancies, when he used instead the term ‘general intellectual factor’, which is a term with much the same factual meaning but more precisely defined and carrying no emotional meaning. Some day a psychological genius will give us X or Z to replace the old emotional conception of sex, and we shall be able to discuss psycho-analysis as objectively as a mathematical physicist can discuss the quantum theory.

On a hunch, I did some rooting around in the back stacks of the Internet–otherwise known as the world of peer-to-peer file sharing–and amazingly enough, located an electronic copy of the book scanned in from the 1952 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition whose cover is shown to the right. It was a little ragged, as such things often are, but essentially intact.

So I took the liberty to clean up the formatting and put it into a more presentable layout for printing or e-reading and am making it available for anyone interested. My U. K. readers might find a quick scan useful in preparation for cutting through the campaign rhetoric ahead of the May 6 General Election:

Straight and Crooked Thinking
(PDF file)

Out of respect for Mr. Thouless’ legatees, I will be happy to pull this file as soon as a new edition becomes available… Which it has, thanks to Hodder Education: < a href:"">

21 thoughts on “Straight and Crooked Thinking, by Robert H. Thouless

  1. Your site is a gem. All the lists of neglected books and your reviews are now my precious guide for selecting the books to read.

  2. I am working on a new edition at the moment. Hodder have agreed to republish at the end of the year. Any good current examples of crooked thinking (preferably categorised using the list in the appendix) would be most welcome.

  3. Great news! It’s a classic “bedrock” text like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” that deserves to be kept in print continuously, not circulated like a piece of samizdat. Let me know when the new edition comes out and I will pull the PDF.

  4. Thanks for posting straight and crooked thinking. I read a portion of it years ago and have been looking for it ever since.

    If they ever do a new printing of it, I’ll buy several copies and give them to my friends.

    In the mean time, I have your PDF

  5. I bought this book 20 odd years ago and lent it to a friend before I could finish reading it. Despite many entreaties over the years he never did return it and today we live far apart. I should have borne in mind that old adage : One who lends a book is a fool; and the one who returns it is a greater fool.

    Thanks for the pdf. I will buy the new print when it is published.

  6. In 1971, in my early I- know-it-all-20s, I was a college student in a political science course whose first compulsory text was S&C Thinking. The instructor was a clever fellow, very small in stature,
    very large in ego…but an ego which was skilled in employing Thouless’ rules of making sound arguments… so, of course, the entire student body always felt out manouevered by his terrific logic.

    Before the end of the year, while watching our little man over the months, it became clear that he knew things about things, but would act mysteriously by not telling the “whole” story of his many stories.

    He seemed to have information about law, crime, scenes of crimes and behind the scenes…but yet would never divulge the source of his information.

    We wanted to find out why he acted mysteriously -not answering questions, deliberately making us wonder what he was hiding. Ok, ok, we perhaps over-dramatized the significance of it , but we were very young and it was the early 70s, and he did style himself as a tyrannical, but right, old school, uptight teacher, and as such deserved our scrutiny.

    Through sleuthing and good luck we found out that he was what they called a “reserve Policeman”..
    which at the time meant, that he was a layman “cop” who took a weekend course or two and could wear a uniform and do backup for the trained guys. The cops liked it because they could add to their numbers when needed,
    the politicians liked it because it was no cost for the extra forces- being a volunteer position, and the Reserves themselves liked it, of course, because they were into that kind of action and perhaps the readily available self-aggrandizement.

    Now begins the revenge of the class –
    We devised a drama, worthy of our instructor’s wit, that would expose his secret to the whole class.
    On a planned day- the last one of the semester – with the whole class warned ahead of time, at the regular starting hour, an highly entertaining drama was about to unfold…

    our instructor began his class as usual…except half of of us were waiting outside hiding…

    He came in , immediately commented on absence of a huge number of people -perhaps he was feeling a bit disrespected or that he had failed in some way, that on the last day of class so many would not show up..but nonetheless he began his class.

    Within a few minutes, the 20 of us in the hall charged in , loudly, in dramatic fashion – sounding like plainclothes police and announce we are taking over the class and putting our instructor on trial.

    In the commotion and movement, our instructor was just standing there watching, slightly entertained and at first tickled at the attention…I went over held out my hand for a handshake and slapped a pair of real cuffs on him, just like was I shone how to do, by a reserve who had shown me, and who had lent me the pair. Before our instructor knew what was happening, I cuffed him to a a chair -he was not happy now – and we set up a jury, judge and lawyers tables.

    We proceeded to give him a kangaroo court, and the book which he had to swear to tell the truth on, was not a bible…it was Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking.

    To make a longer story shorter… he ended up being quite moved by the attention and our elaborate trial of him, and instead of calling him out as a Policeman, in an obvious surprise conclusion, we named him as the head of a small crime ring, and punished him by compelling him to continue teaching this course.

    I have long given away my paperback copy, but I continue to use the those concepts (which) I still remember almost 4 decades ago…and today, am grateful for the pdf copy which has been posted here, so I can re-read that bible for lovers of logic and rationale, and enjoy it again. Thank you.

    Pete Clement

  7. I recently bought the book(hardcover) in a bookshop. It refers to the publishers as Hodder and Stoughton, and it is seemingly the 1st edition. It also has a preface by Robert H Thouless, dated March 1930. Why do so many, not refer to this book as the actual 1st edition

  8. This little book was one of the most important books I read while a music undergraduate, before turning to social science. It helped to shape my approach to life and to focus on rationality without eschewing elegant (even beautiful) prose. I owe a great debt to its author.

  9. Thanks for the note. One would think that there would be dozens of competitors to “Straight and Crooked Thinking,” but it remains a succinct and invaluable guide to humbuggery.

  10. Editor, please re-post the formatted PDF of the 1952 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition as the copyright has expired according to:

    Hodder can make money its money off selling hard-copies but the world (especially the third world) needs free, electronic access to this masterpiece. Submit it to Project Gutenberg as public domain please.

    ~ PDWarrior

  11. I was introduced to “Straight & Crooked Thinking” by my form master during 1949 and was very disappointed by the later Pan version published in 1974 that I bought. I was disappointed because the original that I remember was much shorter and easier to assimilate than this later edition, after it had been subjected to “considerably further revision” after its “extensive revision” of 1953, “expanding some parts …”

    I fear that these attempts to clarify the contents of the book by adding content have simply made it boring! I would love to get hold of a copy of the original.

Leave a Comment