Sunday, May 28, 2017

How to Argue

After last November's election, I saw a number of media articles about disastrous arguments that had erupted among family members and even between couples. There used to be an old saying, "Never discuss religion and politics" in conversation. But today, people sometimes have difficulty finding non-controversial subjects to discuss, partly because the media likes to enhance controversy and division, and partly because entertainment has become so splintered many people aren't watching the same tv shows or movies as their friends or family. To make matters worse, many people today don't know the rules of debate. The rules of what used to be called rhetoric certainly are not modeled by our politicians or  by the media. Here are some of the basic rules:

1. Arguments must be supported by facts. Facts are pieces of information that are demonstrably true. Something isn't true based on the number of people who believe it. A billion people could believe something and it could still be false. Many beliefs throughout history have been believed by the majority of the population of a country or region yet were found later to be utterly false. Truth is supported by observable evidence. The evidence might only be observable with an electron microscope, or it might only be indirectly observable (psychotherapists can observe the workings of psychological defense mechanisms, even though the mechanisms themselves are caused by brain patterns that we haven't yet been able to pinpoint, for example) but there must be observable evidence to support the argument.

2. Arguments and positions must be evaluated on their own merits, rather than being judged by who did the arguing or who holds the position. This is the classic distinction between an "ad jure" and an "ad hominem" attack. An ad hominem attack is a personal attack. For example: Sen. Smith supports a controversial bill. Someone argues against his position by saying "Sen. Smith cheated on his wife who divorced him." This is an ad hominem attack. The problem isn't so much that the attack is personal, the problem is that it is irrelevant. Sen. Smith's marital history is only important if one is planning on dating him or marrying him. It has no relevancy to the legislation he supports, even if the legislation concerns marriage. The validity of the legislation has to stand (or not) on its own merits. The personal attributes of its sponsors have no relationship to the validity of the legislation.

3. Guilt by Association is a smear tactic and should not be used. Guilt by association is often used as part of an insinuation or innuendo. For example: "I saw Sen. Smith talking in a parking lot with the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan." Unless we know what transpired in this conversation, this is an irrelevancy. Even if the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Sen. Smith for public office, this does not mean that Sen. Smith holds the same views as the Klan, unless Sen. Smith asked for an endorsement from the organization or its leader. Although one might assume that an endorsement is done because of similar beliefs held by the endorser and endorsee, that may not be true. The important question is what does Sen. Smith believe and support? Sen. Smith's political positions have to be evaluated based on their own merits or lack thereof.

4. A "Straw Man" argument is an innuendo/insinuation that manufactures a controversy; it is a dishonest tactic that should not be used. Wikipedia has a good entry about Straw Man arguments:

5. Sources cited must be credible. Here are some basic rules for sources that I learned as a journalist in the 1980s, before the profession sank into the mud: a) Information should come from more than one source, especially information that is politically sensitive, incendiary etc. The standard rule for reporting sensitive stories is that the same information must come from two independent sources, in other words, two sources who aren't in collusion with each other  b) Sources must lack bias. In other words, they cannot have an ulterior motive. c) Sources cited as experts must actually be experts. Having an opinion does not make one an expert. Experts are persons with extensive training and/or professional experience in a given field.

If one reads many of today's news outlets (many of which are not actually newspapers or magazines but agenda-driven websites) one can find stories written based on only one source or based on sources with bias. The most notorious recent example was the Rolling Stone magazine campus rape story that was retracted. It was almost entirely based on the account of the victim with no corroboration. For other examples, look for news stories that quote agenda-based organizations on the same topic that the organization promotes or attacks. Anything such sources claim should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Just because their spokesperson is being quoted in a newspaper does not mean that what the spokesperson says is credible.  In fact their bias discredits them. Many news stories try to sidestep this rule by printing "opposing views." They publish (or broadcast) two persons' views that are in opposition to each other. But both viewpoints could be false, if they aren't based on facts. If the subject is technical or scientific or requires professional expertise to understand, the viewpoint is only credible if the person is an expert.

Many ordinary people when arguing a point will base their argument on what they read in the media. Unless the media source you are citing follows the above rules, your argument may be based on false information.

If ordinary people followed all five rules I've cited above, arguments would be less volatile. Because they would be fact-based, the opponent may catch on that listening is an opportunity to learn. If the opponent has no facts, he or she may discontinue the argument and head to the library to find some. Both parties might learn to have more respect for each other, because we tend to respect people who know facts and who avoid insinuations and personal attacks.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading Fiction for Better Mental Health

Does reading improve mental health? There's evidence that it does.

It's long been known that reading improves overall cognitive ability. Studies have shown that there's a correlation between early literacy in children and higher IQ scores later in life, and that reading in older adulthood delays cognitive decline to some extent. Reading involves the decoding of symbols (letters) and forces the brain to interpret words in context--perhaps the brain requires this exercise to stay fit. Pictures don't have the same effect, because understanding them doesn't use the same brain functions.

But what about emotional health? There are several ways reading may improve emotional well-being. This rather long article in The New Yorker
on bibliotherapy cites some studies indicating that reading fiction improves the capacity for empathy and also, can be a "mindfulness" activity (see my previous post on mindfulness).

This brings up the issue of what type of reading we're talking about: Any type of reading may increase general cognitive function, but reading fiction, particularly the best fiction, may have special benefits: Good fiction convinces the reader, temporarily, of the "realness" of the characters, setting and events (thus inducing a trance state that removes the reader from his/her real-life troubles). Good fiction also includes well-developed, multi-dimensional characters and immerses the reader in the character or characters' inner and outer worlds, helping the reader see through their eyes. It's easy to see how this could increase the capacity for empathy.

The best writers portray villains who perhaps weren't always evil, and heroes who are flawed. These nuanced explorations of human nature may especially help readers with personality disorders. Persons with Borderline Personality Disorder in particular typically divide the world into polar opposites: Good v. Bad people, and simplistic or extreme interpretations of events. These tendencies are found in people with Borderline Personality Disorder even when the person has a high IQ, because these distortions are caused by dysfunctional ego defenses, not by low intelligence (see my previous post on Borderline Personality Disorder from Oct. 14, 2015 ).

Reading fiction might also help persons with depression: The characters in the best fiction grapple with conflicts and make mistakes, even when they are the novel's "heroes."  Reading about their struggles might help self-critical persons moderate their self-criticism.

In short, reading is important, but it matters what you read. Many of the opinion essays,  Facebook posts etc. that I come across on the internet are nothing but recitations of popular slogans and catchphrases. They often demonize opponents by using hyperbolic language. They often promote a code of "correct" language that is remarkably reminiscent of the "newspeak" of Orwell's classic dystopian speculative fiction novel "1984." The purpose seems to be to increase fear and hatred of opponents,  as well groupthink and submission to self-promoted "authorities." These are the tools of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This type of reading can have a negative effect on mental health by increasing anger. It might even negatively impact overall cognitive functioning by encouraging simplification.

I've noticed over the years that although reading complex novels doesn't prevent mental illness, my patients who read fiction often seem to cope better with their disorders, including serious disorders.

To increase general knowledge, I recommend reading reputable non-fiction books written by academic experts or by reputable journalists who are basing their works on facts and research, not on opinions. To increase emotional well-being, I recommend reading  fiction (in any genre) that includes multi-dimensional characters. Maybe a book club is a therapy group!