Saturday, July 28, 2012

Insults and Arguments: Why We Need to Do Better

"There's a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reasons that sound good." -Burton Hillis
"We're not enemies, we just disagree."  - The Strokes, Is This It
I'm going to try to make this post entertaining, but the cards are stacked against me. Here's the problem:  I want to be as thoughtful, logical and accurate as possible.  Those things, sadly, don't have much entertainment value. It's a shame, but there you are.  Humor, satire, clever metaphors, hyperbole--those things are entertaining, and they may even lend themselves to deep insights, but they aren't particularly logical or precise. Maybe that's why people like them--logic and precision are dry things. Necessary, but dry.

That's a bitter pill, for those of us who try (try I said) to see the world clearly and rationally, while avoiding being boring or pedantic.  The more we try to be thoughtful and clearheaded, the less entertaining we're likely to be.  Even worse, if we get in a public debate with someone, we may be completely in the right, but if they're more entertaining, they are probably going to be judged the winner.  And it's easier to be entertaining when you're not worried about being accurate.  Never debate a good comedian. You won't win, even if you're right.  At least, not in the eyes of most crowds. 

I learned this lesson years ago, back when I was trying to be a writer and was correspondingly underemployed.  I had signed up with a temp agency, and one day I found myself working for a Sikh trader in oriental rugs, whose first name, I recall, was Surender.  Surender was rearranging the rugs in his warehouse, and he had a whole team of temp workers rolling them up and moving them around (this was amazingly demanding--you don't realize how heavy rugs are until you move them around all day long).  Four of the other temp workers were dodgy sorts, with jailhouse tattoos and jailhouse attitudes.  From their conversation, they seem to have known each other in jail.  Anyway, one of them was an accomplished loudmouth, swearing like a stevedore and bossing everybody else around (in hindsight, I realize he was probably on a roaring meth buzz).  I think he had worked there a couple of days already, so he considered himself an expert at the rug-shifting game.  When he gave me one order too many, I said, "Hold on. Why are bossing everybody around?  How long have you been here?"  Everyone else stopped and looked at us.  He eyed me and said, "How long have I been where? On Earth?!"  The rest of the ex-cons laughed like that was the funniest thing ever said.  "Burn!!"  "Good one, dude! Tell him!".  Everybody else laughed along nervously, and kept folding rugs and taking orders.

I lost that argument.  Not because I didn't have a point.  I did, and some of the other guys agreed with me. I lost because my opponent had been judged the wittiest, by a jury of his peers.* It was embarrassing, but I had learned a good lesson.  The person who makes the most entertaining remarks, or seems sympathetic to the most observers, generally wins a public debate--at least in the eyes of the public.  Their opponent may be more reasonable, and may even be right, but that doesn't matter.  If you come off looking tongue-tied, or stiff, or pretentious, you lose.

Obviously, this is a problem, because wrong is still wrong, even if it makes the crowd go wild.  If someone give the most eloquent, memorable speech ever, extolling the benefits of drinking strychnine, that doesn't make strychnine good for you. If the people in the crowd rush home and make strychnine tea, most of them will die, no matter how convincing the speech was.  If this weren't true--if facts and truth didn't matter--then it would be fine that glibness convinces more people than reason.  But they do matter, so it isn't fine.

But what can be done?  The only solution, I think, is to educate as many people as possible about what makes a statement truly convincing, and what just makes it seem convincing.  In other words, people need to know what constitutes a valid argument, and what constitutes a fallacious or invalid one.  I'm using the word "argument" in a particular way here.  I don't mean it in the sense of "verbal conflict".  Logically speaking, an argument is a claim that is supported with other claims.  The main claim is called a conclusion, and the supporting claims are called premises.  When you give an argument, you don't just state your conclusion.  You state your premises, too:  the reasons, or evidence, that supports your conclusion.  If I say, "Bernie Madoff is a swindler", that is true, but it isn't an argument.  To make it an argument, I would have to offer facts about the Ponzi schemes he was running, and how many people they ruined.  A naked claim, with no evidence to back it up, doesn't give you any reason to believe it.  If a stranger walked up to you and said "Bernie Madoff is a swindler", and you had never heard of Bernie Madoff, you would have no particular reason to believe him.

Once you explain what arguments are, it's easy to see why they're essential in a debate.  Strangely, though, most of the statements in a debate aren't arguments. Think about the debates you've seen break out in online comment threads.  You've almost certainly seen insults (You liberals are a bunch of idiots), jokes (If Obama came out for oxygen, Republicans would stop breathing), ridicule (Nobody with any sense believes that), demonization (Republicans love it when homeless people die in the gutter), cheerleading for your side (I'm a conservative and proud of it!), and old-fashioned, meaningless verbal abuse (Screw you!).  Actual arguments, where someone makes a claim and then backs it up with reasons or statistics, are the exceptions to the rule in most debates (just look at an online debate and see how many you can find).  Even when people do offer actual arguments, many of them are invalid, because they commit one fallacy or another.  Their premises are wrong, or irrelevant, or their conclusions don't follow from their premises.  Most debates online are like a Three Stooges fight, all eye-poking and ear-pulling.  They're noisy, and they entertain some people, but they don't prove a thing, except possibly who can gouge eyes with the most flair.

If most of the statements people make in a debate have no bearing on whether the idea being debated is true or false, because they offer no evidence for or against it...why do people make them?  I think it's because finding the truth isn't peoples' main goal in a debate. The real (if unconscious) goals for most of us are things like showing people how smart we are, convincing our opponents we're right (and how often does that happen?), making our opponents look bad, displaying support for our side, and so on. 

Of course, most people don't admit these things to themselves. They think they already have the truth, and that they're defending it when they debate.  This means they don't see a debate as an interaction that might bring all parties closer to the truth.  They think they're already there.  Maybe that's why many people don't put a lot of thought into whether the things they are saying are valid arguments. That rarely occurs to them, because they take it for granted that they know what's really true.  Why worry about giving valid reasons for your claims when you know you're right?  Why not spend your time trying to sound smart, and making the other side look bad? Especially when many of the people watching the debate think that insults, ridicule, and fallacies are just as compelling as valid arguments, if not more so. They're more likely to be vivid and memorable, after all.

Why are people so...unreasonable? I think it's because most of us have far too much faith in our ability to see the world as it really is. Human senses are weak, and the human mind is amazingly error-prone. Think about basic sensory perception, and how limited it really is. We can see only a thin slice of a vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.  Our eyes can detect red, green, and blue light, but not infrared or ultraviolet, to say nothing of radio waves and x-rays.  Similarly, we can only hear a thin slice of the spectrum of sound waves out there.  Elephants communicate in deep rumbles that carry for miles, but we can't hear them, because they are too low-pitched for our ears.  Not only are our perceptions limited, but we make sense of what we do perceive by bending it to fit with what we already know or believe.  People fall prey to all sorts of perceptual illusions, cognitive biases, and fallacies of reasoning.  If you start looking up these mental pitfalls, you'll find there are hundreds of them. Can you really be that sure you're right, when there are so many ways to be wrong?

Not only is it easy to misinterpret the evidence of our senses, but for many of us, evidence isn't even what's important. People quite often hold beliefs for reasons that have very little to do with how much evidence they have for them.  People may accept a belief because:
  • They grew up believing it.
  • Their friends and the people they identify with believe it.
  • It makes them feel good.
What would make the most sense, when deciding what to believe, is to first look at the evidence, and then decide what you think is true.  That's not what people do most of the time. They get their beliefs from others, and then they look for arguments that support them, and ignore arguments that don't. They associate with people who share their beliefs, and tend to avoid or even demonize those who question them. Liberals read liberal magazines and nod along, and conservatives do the same thing with conservative magazines. It's more comfortable that way.

We all do these things, to some extent.  We do them because, even though we're prolific in our errors, we're passionate in our beliefs. We get upset when our beliefs are questioned.  We'll defend some of them to our last breath, even though we are fairly likely to be wrong.  In fact, some of the ideas with the least evidence to support them are the ones people kill each other for the most. It's one of the great absurdities of humankind, but there it is.

So, how do we get out of this mess? How do we stop being so silly?

I think we should start by taking hard look at ourselves, and admitting just how silly we've been. We should admit how error-prone we are, and that we might be wrong. We should take another look at the way we argue with others. If we could just admit that we might be wrong--that the "truths" we are defending might not be unassailable--then maybe we could admit that we are going about debate in the wrong way.  Maybe, for example, we actually need to give reasons for our claims, instead of squawking and jeering and saying that whoever doesn't believe us is a fool or a villain. If we decide that the purpose of debate isn't to prove we are right, but to discuss things until we all get closer to what is true, then maybe we should listen more to our opponents. Lots of them are smarter than we think. Perhaps we should interpret their arguments charitably, instead of caricaturing them. When they make a good point, we should acknowledge it. When they point out a flaw in our own reasoning, maybe we should actually admit it, and even (gasp) thank them for pointing out our mistake.  Maybe we should de-escalate the discussion when it gets heated, so that everyone keeps listening and learning from each other. 

I think these are all worthy ideas, but the main point I want to make in this essay is that we need to learn the difference between a real argument and its imitators. We need to spot fallacious reasoning in others, but we also need to spot it in ourselves (this is harder, because of our self-serving biases, which means it really is easier for other people to point them out). One way to start is by reading about cognitive biases and logical fallacies, and learning to watch for them (and not just in other people). I've listed some good places to start in the links below.

Of course, it's no easy thing to recognize the flaws in our own thinking.  And it may even be thankless. You may think, "What's the point of improving my reasoning--trading insults and fallacies for good arguments--if so many people out there are convinced by bad reasons, and wouldn't know valid reasoning if it mugged them in the street? If I debate someone funnier than me, and everyone decides the funny guy won, then what's the use?"

All I can offer is that the truth matters. Honesty matters. Striving for reasonable debate--and against unnecessary, childish squabbling--matters. That's why it's not enough just to improve our own reasoning. We have to convince others to recognize good reasoning, so that it gains more widespread respect, and bad reasoning loses it. We need more people to be able to recognize the difference between an unfounded assertion and a well-supported one. We need people to know the difference between a satirical jab, hilarious as it may be, and a plain, honest, valid point. Of course we're never going to show everyone how to think and debate intelligently. But the more people learn how, the better off we'll all be.

A Rulebook for Arguments. Anthony Weston.  A good, concise guide to arguments and critical thinking.

Rhetological Fallacies:  An infographic from Information is Beautiful

Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies:  Has a nice, printable poster about fallacies.

 * I did get the last laugh.  Later that day, I noticed the bossy comedian was gone.  I asked Surender where he was, and he raised an eyebrow and said, "He had a foul mouth.  He had to go".