The primary inspiration for this post, which I’ve been meaning to write since I started this blog, is a 1995 webpage titled The Art of Conversation. In fact, as I’ve done with this post, it could be called The Art of Debate, since debate over a topic — a dialectic — is what drives these (in fact ancient) ideas about discourse and rhetoric.
The page’s authors (Dean & Marshall VanDruff) give it other names: Conversational Cheap Shots! (on the site’s main page link) and Conversational Terrorism (on the page itself). The graphic, which I’ve shamelessly recreated here, calls it How Not To Talk.
Regardless, it’s about how to have an honest effective debate that actually goes somewhere. (Be that concordance or disagreement.)
I should emphasize this post isn’t directed at anyone or anything in particular. I’m not grinding any specific axes here. The seeds of this predate my blog by over a decade — I’ve been a fan of the page since the 90s. I’ve put off posting about it expressly because I don’t anyone thinking it’s personal, but it’s been sitting in my drafts folder long enough.
As always when I venture to write prescriptively or normatively, I speak only to my own experience. These prescriptions may not lead to a successful debate (since everyone needs to abide by them), but I’ve found them helpful in keeping me intellectually honest in my own thinking. Because they are about logical fallacies, they keep me from too much mental silliness.
Rather than the art of conversation or debate, it might be better to think of it as the skill of conversation or debate. Anyone can learn and practice the rules of a dialectic.
That said, there can be an art to it as well. The ability to find the most effective words or metaphors can, indeed, be something of an art and tied to a person’s innate creativity. In some ways, there is a connection between debate and storytelling. A narrative can help make an argument compelling.
Yet practice always improves one’s skills. I have, more than once, been accused of verbal “judo” or “jujitsu” — the implication being I’m somehow using unfair tactics. While I can appreciate how intimidating it can feel (I run into people who make me feel it, too), the only way to grow is to work at acquiring the skills. No pain, no gain.
To some extent, one’s ego is always the enemy of learning. To the extent we’re sure we know something, we often close ourselves to further thought about it.
I recently encountered a quote by Josh Billings that puts it well:
“What gets us in trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It’s when we’re most certain that a small voice in our heads should ask: “But also maybe not?” Never take yourself too seriously.
The How NOT To Talk webpage is divided into key sections:
- Ad Hominem Variants
- Sleight of Mind Fallacies
- Delay Tactics
- Question As Opportunity
- Cheap Shot Tactics and Irritants
The titles give a sense of the basic categories of dialectic error, and they all make good reading. If nothing else, one can keep track of how many of them one encounters while traipsing through comment sections (or even some blog posts themselves).
There is also that the page is fun and easy to read. Every once in a while I open it and read it just to refresh and remind myself.
I think it’s all too easy to fall into these. The first skill we must gain is the ability to hear our own words and spot when we resort to these tactics. We’re only human, and we all do it, even when we know better!
Note that these tactics can be successful if the other party is fooled or distracted by them, but using fallacies or bullying is what I consider unfair. The goal of the dialectic is intellectual honesty, not sophistry.
I’ll mention Rational Wikipedia as another, more detailed, source for learning the skill and art the dialectic. As with the Wikipedia we all know and love, this resource is also ad-free.
Also as with Wikipedia, it’s very easy to lose hours Wiki Walking.
This is another webpage that goes way back. The page says copyright 1998, so at least that far. It seems like I recall references to it going back even further, but that could just be my faulty memory.
The Index offers 36 weighted characteristics or traits that one may note when encountering someone with self-developed ideas on the internet. The weighting varies from 1 to 50 points. (The list actually has 37 items, but #1 is that everyone starts off with a goodwill -5 points.)
At the extremes, the first item, “1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false,” and the last, “50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.” The others all fall between (2–40 points).
If nothing else, like Art of Conversation page, it’s fun to read.
It all boils down to a phrase I’ve used already: intellectual honesty.
Honesty is generally an important, even vital, part of most human relationships. Honesty and trust are closely connected. Responsibility is another aspect of this; we gain trust in being responsible for our actions and thoughts.
Another quote I encountered recently, this one due to (Lutheran minister, theologian, hymnodist, and poet) Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676):
“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives.”
Indeed. Lying is bad, m’kay? Lying in science is double-plus extra bad, m’kay?
(As an aside, internet spam has made it increasingly hard to source quotes. The bulk of quote sites are loaded with ads and spam. The internet claims Gerhardt said it, but I can’t find the actual source text or even what it’s called.)
As an example, considering the following very common sentiment:
We know Dark Matter is true, we just need to find it.
This is the default assumption made by many astronomers and physics theorists today. The belief holds firm, even as the window for possible candidates grows experimentally smaller and smaller.
Yet the truth is that the only facts we have involve cosmological observations that don’t accord with our current models of galaxies and their clusters. The notion of Dark Matter (DM) is that something physical but invisible accounts for this. It may be something we already know about (black holes, neutrinos, etc), or it may be some new particle (such as a WIMP). So far, nothing has been found in any experiment (and there are many of them).
On the other hand, consider a common view from the opposing camp:
We know MOND is true, we just need to prove it.
Again observation has turned into a belief that becomes the keel of further thought.
The opposing idea, some sort of Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), is that at very large scales, gravity acts differently than on smaller scales. In this case, smaller scales include entire star systems, so we wouldn’t expect to see the effects of MOND locally. They only show up at galactic scales.
Both of these ideas are currently speculative. No factual evidence exists either way.
More to the point, both the above views are unwarranted. They aren’t as intellectually honest as they could be. They aren’t intentionally dishonest, but keep in mind how Hell Road is paved.
There can be a question of which view, if any, to trust or take on faith. We can’t all be experts on every topic, so in most cases we need to take the word of someone more expert. But what to do when even the experts disagree?
Alternately, what if some disregarded outlier idea turns out to be the truth and mainstream thought turns out to be wrong?
We might use some metaphorical graphing:
Figure 1 introduces the notion of a collective concordance (or consensus, if you prefer) about some specific topic. The idea here, in variance with most of real life, is that everyone is basically on the same page, but there is variance when it comes to the details.
The curve in red represents seriously unusual agreement on the topic. This is especially rare in modern thought. (There is — of course — an xkcd comic that addresses this.) The green curve represents more diverse opinion, but still centered on basic agreement about the subject at hand.
There are cases where a graph like this does make real world sense. For instance, if the subject was a given TV show or food dish. What’s more likely is distinct competing opinions. For instance, the DM vs MOND situation:
In this case two separate ideas compete for a single prize, the truth that explains our observations. (Which is always the prize in science.)
Such situations (normally) can only exist when, as with the DM-MOND debate, facts don’t exist to prove or disprove either view. The only honest position intellectually is that we don’t know.
The height of the curves in Figure 2 is not meant to represent my position but what I take as the more mainstream one. In fact, I find myself leaning more and more towards MOND. (But no one knows.)
Things can get even more complicated when there are multiple competing views:
This example illustrates (some of!) the different interpretations of quantum mechanics, but it could equally apply to the field of theories about human consciousness (HOT, GWT, IIT, etc).
I think there is a strong (and kind of obvious) correlation between a lack of facts about a subject and the number of theories that arise that seek to explain it.
As far as which camp to align with, if one is indeed moved to align with any, when views seem roughly balanced, that probably either means everyone is equally in the dark (as in quantum mechanics) or that all views have strong merits but also strong flaws.
When competing camps don’t resolve there’s always a reason. It might be that everyone is guessing. It might be that everyone has a good point.
It’s important to understand that, in some cases, there is no right answer. It all comes down to one’s worldview and goals. Progressive versus conservative government is one good example. The only solution in such cases is compromise and coexistence.
In science, however, we can hope for facts. And at least sometimes things aren’t quite so balanced. Consider, for instance:
The standard model (of particle physics) has a strong concordance, although, as Figure 3 showed, there are competing, mostly equal, interpretations of what the math behind the standard model means.
The notion of axions seems well-grounded (even if they are named after a soap), and while no evidence has been found so far, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if some showed up. Axions aren’t quite as well-grounded as, say, the Higgs boson was, but they also don’t seem too extreme an addition.
Supersymmetry (SUSY), however, increasingly seems a losing bet. No supersymmetric particles have ever been observed, and the window has gotten quite small. Such particles are approaching putative mass regimes that tend to eliminate the reason they’re theorized in the first place. The idea, in fact, seems to be dying.
One might also put String Theory in the same place as SUSY, although for different reasons.
The best tool is a strong science foundation that allows one to make some degree of sense of these claims. Foundational skills translate to all areas of science.
Then one can compare concordance in views. Climate change, for one example, has a very strong concordance. Even if one takes the outliers seriously, they’re still outliers and need to be treated with skepticism.
As is often said, “Extreme ideas need extreme proof.” Something that runs counter to well-established mainstream thought needs to justify its existence.
Further, all speculative ideas must always be taken with a grain of salt. Experimental data always trumps theory, no contest.
There are two very important aspects to all this:
- Admitting the weaknesses of one’s position.
- Admitting the strengths of the opposing position.
People tend to suck at both (because ego), yet in almost all cases both are manifestly true. Very few positions are without weaknesses, and any debate worth having indicates a topic with strong points on both sides. That’s why the topic is up for debate!
Polarization, something that’s a huge social problem right now, comes from this inability. Very few seem capable of admitting an opposing position makes good points, even though one doesn’t agree with them. We seem to conflate the idea of a valid argument with the idea of truth. They aren’t the same. Logic — correct logic — is often wielded in service of a point, right or wrong. (But the intellectually honest avoid and resist sophistry.)
There is also this list of important skills presented in order of increasing difficulty:
- I don’t know!
- I might be wrong!
- I was wrong!
- You were right!
I’ve known people who really choke on that last one.
Many, myself included, sometimes question the value of philosophy. It is a field prone to naval-gazing, and I’ve always found the profession of Philosopher a bit suspicious. Sometimes I think the only valid profession for a philosopher is teaching philosophy.
The learning of which I consider both useful and important for exactly the reasons explored in this post. It teaches clear thinking. It teaches us to question our assumptions and beliefs. Nearly all the ideas here trace back to philosophical concepts.
Debate, of course, is right up Philosophy Alley.
Stay rational, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.