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.

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