Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Of Arguments and Fools...

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Over the last few days I have been embroiled in several debates on Facebook ranging in topics from religion and politics, to science and climate change. Some of the things that I've debated about quite literally make no sense. I could just elect to not engage these people, but I have a compulsion to stamp out incorrect information and it usually leads me to engage in these debates.

As I've gotten older I have gotten somewhat wiser. Eventually there comes a point when you realize that the person with whom you are debating with is either unwilling or unable to change their views. This was the case in all of the debates that I was involved in; one was with a racist bigot who's personal views were too far ingrained to look at the situation objectively, another was with a conspiracy theorist (a whole special kind of case there), and the third was with a narcissist who could not be wrong.

Sadly, in all of these cases the debates turned into arguments, at which point I bowed out. Only a fool continues to argue with the foolish. There is a huge difference between a debate and an argument. A debate is two or more differing positions on a subject that are presented with facts, logical constructs, or reason-based arguments as their support. One person comments, the other person listens to that comment, rebuts the point (usually), and then makes a counter argument. An argument is simply saying "not uh" and "you're wrong" over and over again. When that starts to happen, save your breath.

Most of the time intelligent people can have a debate and realize that just because a person has opposing views on a particular subject as you does not make them a bad person. It just means that they have a different viewpoint than you on that subject. That's totally okay. There are several people on my friends list on FB that have very different opinions about me on certain topics, but those people are also some of the people that I respect the most; JD and Josh H. in particular. Why is that? Because during the debates that we've been in they've been able to present their arguments logically and/or factually, and most importantly, respectfully.

I enjoy seeking out debates with people who have different opinions than I do. Every time I do, I'm secretly hoping that they have debate skills like the fine gentlemen that I've mentioned above. I want them to present a solid argument. Show me facts. Give me a logical construct to frame your position, or explain with reason why your position is superior. I crave this in a debate. I enjoy this because when I'm presented with information and logical arguments it forces me to re-evaluate my own beliefs. Do I believe what I believe because it makes sense and it's the right thing to believe? Or do I believe what I believe because someone told me once that I should think this and I've never bothered to question that? Both of the men I've mentioned above have been successful in changing my opinion about different topics at one point or another because they were able to present information or logical constructs that I had not considered before.

There are several maddeningly frustrating elements at work when you debate with someone who does not understand these principles for whatever reason. One frustrating element is that some people will fabricate information to prove a point. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, as much as I respect him, has been guilty of fabricating or incorrectly attributing quotes when he makes anecdotal references. This is ethically questionable. But, in the scope of what information he's presenting, a quote being incorrectly attributed is more forgivable than botching the factual data at the crux of his argument. A more specific example of this comes from one of the debates I was involved in regarding Climate Change. One of the debaters said: "the co-founder of the Weather Channel is a doctor of meteorology and he says that it [man-caused global climate change] is a fraud. I believe him." This was his response to my presentation of scientific data that demonstrates that the CO2 levels in the air sharply increase coincidentally at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. He was presented with facts, so he responded by quoting an "expert". But, there's a problem. The man that he is speaking of is John Coleman. He has been quite a vocal critic of climate change since 1987, that part is true. But he is not a doctor. Not only that, he has not any academic degrees from any institution in any academic discipline. His opposition to global climate change is not based on factual evidence, but instead based on his own opinion.

But this is just one of many tools of the trade. Another very common example is the Ad Hominem attack. The ad hominem attack is an attempt to discredit a person's argument by attacking their personal character. At various points in different arguments I have been called: a Republican, a Democrat, a Conservative, a Liberal, A "Tea-Party psycho", They bring politics into the debate to build upon the ad hominem attack; because you are a [fill in party here], then clearly the logic of your argument must be unsound. This is an asinine argument.

Confirmation bias is another common problem that crops up in online debates. Confirmation bias is the refusal to accept or consider new information that might force you to admit that your position is wrong. For example, someone might argue; there's no such thing as man-created global climate change, see this snow storm proves it! and then you might point out that the snow storm was caused by a tropical storm interrupting the jet stream (a condition of global warming), the pacific ocean is warming rapidly (sharks in the tropics have been found as far south as Australia and fish native to Hawaii have been found as far north as Alaska), and that the CO2 levels in the air sharply and drastically increase beginning with the start of the industrial revolution. Confirmation bias sets in when this information is wholly dismissed with wild assertions like that data is a conspiracy to keep scientists employed/keep government or big business funded or Climate scientists don't know what they're talking about, I did my own research. Or, my favorite it's only a theory. Clearly, people who use that one in particular have no experience in scientific research whatsoever.

Circular Arguments are also equally frustrating. Circular arguments make a chain of events that ultimately leads back to the original point. Global warming isn't real, the weatherman said so! But, science. Those scientists are wrong, the data is inaccurate. It's a conspiracy! But, logic. But logic is wrong because I don't want to believe it. But, reason. No, reason isn't right, the weatherman said so! ...repeat ad inifinitum.

I encourage everyone to head over here: http://www.yourlogicalfallacyis.com and read the different types of logical fallacies and why they are bad. You may still fall victim to some of them from time to time, we all do, it's human nature, but once you are more aware of them you can work to avoid using them in your own debates. 

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.