Sunday, May 31, 2015

Arguments, Experts, and Evidence

So.. Im about to spew forth that long rant, that most genuine experts, and scientists, and engineers, and doctors, and lawyers and people with decades of experience in their fields, and anyone with formal traing, or skill and experience, in argument and debate; have at least yelled out out in their heads, if not actually to others faces, or in writing or electronic media... When faced with people who really have no basis basis or rationale to claim... whatever it is they are claiming, or dispute whatever it is they are disputing... and aren't even doing so in a coherent manner.

So, basically, most of the internet...

I'm increasingly weary of those who reflexively disagree with conclusions or data that don't fit their social, moral, or ideological preferences (left, right, doesn't matter, people from all sides do it).

I can live with this though, if they can admit their position is not based on supported arguments or data (it may be based on emotion, or differing first principles, morals, ethics, or other primarily or purely subjective opinions or assumptions; not necessarily provable with logic, argument, or data)

...Or if they don't try to argue a subject they don't know well enough to intelligently and usefully argue about (or even to explain their own position properly).

...Or if they can at least accept these things, after they are shown that they are so, if they didnt know this beforehand (which is unfortunately frequent... and sadly many people CAN'T, or at least won't).

I'm more than happy to honestly, intelligently, and usefully, argue or debate just about anything, with just about anyone. In fact I love it, and I actively seek it out. Its fun, its interesting, its amusing, it can even be exhillerating. On top of all that, it's the best way I know of, to actually make everyone smarter, with better ideas, and better arguments for them.

I would rather argue and be proven wrong, than continue to believe (and act on the mistaken belief) that I was right, when I wasnt... I don't find that embarrassing or humiliating (well...unless I made an obvious and stupid error... and then I deserve it)... I find it useful, and helpful. Otherwise, how else do we fix problems, correct errors, and prevent misunderstandings and misconceptions from turning into disasters?

I really hate being wrong. I hate it so much, that I'm happy to be corrected, and I'm happy to admit when I'm wrong... once you've proven it (or if I trust your knowledge in the subject over mine).

If it's something I'm confident in though, you'd better be prepared to do the work, and argue your position properly, with proper support (and I generally won't write seriously about something, unless I am confident in it, otherwise I'll say so, and generally ask for confirmation or correction from readers).

If you want to engage in that way, I've got all the time in the world for it.

What I simply no longer have the energy or patience for, are the disingenuous, the incompetent, and the lazy.

Those who do not wish to honestly, legitimately, and usefully argue, but pretend to do so anyway.

Those who wish to argue, but don't know how to argue properly, or don't know the subject well enough to do so... and either can't admit, or are ignorant of, the fact that they dont (and won't accept it when shown).

Those who argue vehemently, but can't be bothered to do the work necessary to understand, articulate, and support their own arguments and position properly; never mind bothering to read, understand, and evaluate my position, arguments, and supporting data.

Those who in theory, are attempting to use valid data, logic, and arguments, to question or clarify those things they disagree with; but who are in fact just playing "gotcha" games, in order to discredit and dismiss, anything which might challenge their preferences and preconceptions, without real consideration.

... The saddest part being, many honestly believe that those ARE valid strategies and tecchniques for argument and debate; often because they have never been taught otherwise...

...And because very often those invalid strategies and techniques work, and they "win" arguments with them... against those who don't know any better, or who simply don't care...

These people seem to love "challenging" me to explain... or often, to re-explain for the third or fourth time... everything, in depth, with additional sources and citations; which they don't actually care about, won't bother reading, and wouldn't pay attention to or believe if they did. Often they do this in multiple consecutive threads on the same topic, "challenging" me to re-prove the same things over and over, and to deal with the same false and invalid "gotchas", assertions, assumptions, and non-refutations.

Because, of course, they don't want to debate, understand, or learn; and aren't open to challenging, never mind changing, their ideas and positions... They just want to protect their preexisting notions and preferences.

So, I'm just not bothering with most of them anymore. I'll give it one shot, and if they prove to be one of the time and energy wasters, unless I really like and respect them personally... I'm done.

For one thing, I already write several thousand word posts on complex subjects, and those are nowhere near in depth enough to even skim the surface of these issues... but they are generally as comprehensive, well argued, and well supported as this format allows (unless I'm just annoyed or being snarky... but those USUALLY aren't the long complicated ones).

And I'm happy to usefully engage in comments, including giving background and context for those unfamiliar with the issue, or more fully explaining or supporting points and positions.

...TO A POINT...

It's not my job to fully educate someone on a subject. If they are attempting to engage in argument with someone who clearly IS knowledgeable about a subject, and has just spent several hundred or several thousand words writing intelligently about it; it's a prerequisite that they have the background, put in the effort, and do the work, to do so intelligently.

Often, their questions and comments clearly show they didn't read, or didn't understand, what I wrote in the first place... Or they skimmed, or cherrypicked, or read to the point where they thought they hit a "gotcha", before indignantly commenting.

Or worst of all,  they've just decided to argue against a position they assumed I would take, or one completely separate, or even irrelevant to the issue; rather than actually addressing the position, argument, theories, or data presented. 

Straw men, false dilemmas, false dichotomy, splitting, moving the goalposts, reframing the issue to overbroaden or overnarrow it, and attempts to force pivots and redirects abound, as do appeals to motive, and other ad hominem. Then there's everyone's favorite,  argumentum ad nauseum. Because if you simply make the same a priori assertions and invalid or disproven non-arguments over and over again, YOU WIN... right!

And of course, any data or citations provided which might challenge their position, no matter how many and how reputable the sources, would be "biased" and "cherrypicking" or inadequate, or suspect or... Meanwhile, their attempts at refutation, generally come in the from of transparently biased and ideological media puff pieces, on transparently ideological web sites which care nothing for truth or fact; or simply making a priori assertions, unsupported appeals to authority, appeals to motive, ad hominem and tu quoque, and more argumentative games.

...Which of course they then simply positively assert to be unquestionably valid, sufficient, true and correct... and declare their own unquestionable victory, having never actually engaged in argument to begin with.

This is the basic textbook of bad argument technique; whether they have never been taught how to properly argue and support a position... Which, sadly, applies to most people... Or whether it's deliberate in order to shutdown argument or dissent without giving other positions a hearing.

I've just grown tired of it, particularly when most (though certainly not all) don't even have the background necessary to understand the issues in question, or to recognize invalid assumptions or arguments, or to detect when they are being lied to by their sources... Or even to evaluate the quality and reliability of their sources at all. 

....Most especially when it's patently obvious that they don't, and  they are  just parrotting what other people they agree with ideologically tell them... Or worse, what "feels right"...

Honestly, I'm not sure which is worse... When they know they dont have the necessary background but keep arguing anyway... Or when they think they do, and that they have actually made good arguments, or even "won".

When I say they dont have the background, I dont mean that they are unintelligent or poorly educated. If that's what I meant, that's what I would have said.

What I'm saying, is that they dont have sufficient depth and breadth, of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter (and the disparate or  broader subject matters, which it impacts, impacts it, or which it depends on), to properly understand, evaluate, support, or argue, ANY position... at least with any degree of authority or confidence.

Also, and importantly, most people are simply not skilled and experienced in rhetoric, debate, analysis, logic; and the basic modes and methods of legal, philosophical, and scientific inquiry and argument (the basis of most formal argument).

Most don't have the logical, analytical, and critical thinking skills and experience; necessary to frame, articulate, and properly support strong arguments; to detect fallacies and weak arguments; or to independently evaluate and weight the reliability and validity of data, assertions, arguments, and sources.

At one time, most people in this country, with at least a high school education, did have these skills... Or at least they were taught and reinforced; so that people were equipped with the tools, if they put in the effort. Certainly this was true for most college graduates in most fields of study, at most colleges and universities... At least, until the late 1960s anyway (and it still is true for the hard sciences, at least within the sphere of their subject matter).

... Not so much anymore unfortunately... Most people don't even know what these things are anymore (if they even know they exist), never mind having any skill or experience in them.

Because this is so, most people, most of the time, depend mostly on "common sense" (which is frequently wrong), basic assumptions which feel right or "make sense" (but frequently are not, and do not), and appeals to authority (which may or may not be valid, but they don't have the ability to evaluate that validity, so they just pick whatever authority agrees with their preconceived notions, what their friends, teachers, or the media told them, or their "gut feeling").

That is not a good argument... It isn't really even an argument at all.

Presuming you have sufficient intelligence, a decent fundamental education, and aptitude for learning (and have been taught or learned those critical skills in logic, reasoning, research etc...); on many subjects, you can get the background you need for an intelligent and useful argument, through research, self education, seeking out good sources and data you can validate and analyze properly, and finding experts you can learn from and question (not simply blindly accept data, argument, conclusion, or position from... that's just another appeal to authority).

This is not to say expert opinions are without value... just that they should not simply be accepted blindly, without validating their expertise, position, arguments, and data.

Experts need more than just credentials, education, and experience. They need to clearly and properly support their opinions and positions, with strong arguments, and good data which properly support their arguments.

Further, they must properly account for or resolve any exceptions, conflicts, exclusions, variances, and discrepancies; with any pre-existing positions observed to be valid, with any credible and supported new positions which arise, and with observable reality.

If a position is well supported, aligned with observable reality, doesn't have major unresolved issues, and doesn't require require major changes if true or accepted... only then is it generally acceptable to adopt or at least consider that position valid.

However, if any of those conditionals are unsatisfied, that position must be much more stringently validated.

Once the expert has presented their position, arguments, and data (along with resolving issues noted in this process), the hard work is yours. You have to do your best to validate or invalidate their position, arguments, and data; and if at all possible to independently test, and prove or disprove their position.

These must be validated not just in their own context and in the scope of their own arguments and data, in isolation. They must be validated for consistency or contradiction with outside fields and systems, scope, and data.

Anything, in any field, area, or scope, could potentially invalidate or raise a discrepancy in an experts position.

If their position is dependent on certain assumptions being true, and within their own field and scope these assumptions appear true, it is tempting to accept them. However, in an entirely different field or scope, observational data could prove that those assumptions are in variance, are conditional, or are plain false.

Also, any position must be generally validated, against logic, physics, mathematics, the basic science or other basic parameters of the field, and all known provably or observably true theories, laws, and hard data

This is called the "reality test". Any valid position must not be in conflict with, excluded by, or contradicted by observed or provably true or correct "reality" in any way that cannot be properly accounted for.

Nor can there be substantial or significant unresolved variances or discrepancies between the provably true or observed data, and in those things which must be true for their position to be true, or in any major element, assumption, condition, or dependency of their position, or in those things which are predicted or implied by their position, and the observed data.

***with the notable exception of certain esoteric areas of math and physics, where the scientists are certain there ARE laws... They just don't know what they are yet, or how they a work, or why, or why the normal laws don't work the same, or at all... Which they currently explain by saying "the laws work everywhere except here, which is different, because... things" ***

Once raised, any conflicts, exclusions, contradictions, or significant variances or discrepancies, must be resolved; or the position must be considered invalidated, or at best incomplete and unproven with significant unknown factors, and high potential error.

...and guess what?

THAT, is how you analyze and validate (or invalidate) ANY argument or position, no matter whose it is.

THAT, is the difference between a well supported position, and an unsupported position.

... and people used to understand that...

...But for some reason, don't seem to anymore...

Almost anyone can do these things... you just have to be willing to put in the time and effort.

If you're not.. It just takes way too much time and energy, to bother doing all the extra work, for people who wouldn't change their minds no matter what evidence or argument was presented to them.

I don't write these things for them.

I write for me, because Im amused, or angered, or irritated, or frustrated, or fascinated... Or to think out loud... Or just to get stuff out of my head.

I write for those who don't know the details, or the background, or the supporting arguments, or the basic principles; of the positions they assume are true (or false), and who want to learn them. Because a bad argument, or a badly supported good argument, actually HARMS your own position.

If you can't fully explain your own position, and why and how you came to it (with supporting data where applicable)... AND fully understand, explain, and refute, (with supporting data where applicable), those positions opposed to your own...  Then you don't really know your own position.

...You certainly don't know it well enough to make a good argument for it, and you should do your best to never make anything but good arguments, lest you actually harm your position.

Finally, I write for the people who actually DO want to, and are capable of, having an intelligent and useful argument. Because as I said above, that's what makes us all smarter and better.

So, I've taken to stating a position, with arguments and supporting data, as completely and clearly as I can in the space and time available; then leaving breadcrumbs and pointers.

If someone then chooses to engage... or at least those people who I care to bother spending the time and energy on... I tell them two things:


"Please do me the courtesy of presuming that I am not stupid, evil, or insane, until an unless I prove otherwise. I will do the same for you, until and unless you prove otherwise.

Either of us may be mistaken in whole or in part, and we may disagree on details and methods, but we want the same things. Both of us want people to be better off, and for the world to be a better place. Neither of us want people to be worse off or for the world to be a worse place. If you cant do that, there is nothing for us to talk about".

... unfortunately, many people CAN'T actually make that emotional and intellectual leap, but that's another issue...

And second...

"I pointed you in a direction, now you do your own research. You wont believe what I tell you, or the sources I cite anyway, and even if you did, I want you to find your own, so I am not unduly biasing your research.

Don't start from your preferred conclusion and work back just far enough to justify it. Start from the beginning, and do your own research.

Actually educate yourself about the issue, in order to come to YOUR OWN position, not just one told to you by others. You can only do that after understanding and evaluating all the data and the arguments, and all of the background. Educate yourself about my position, and your position, well enough to have a meaningful conversation about it.

When you actually understand the issue, and the arguments and positions, come back and we'll talk about where there are  reasonable disagreements about details, data, conclusions, or where there are fundamental differences in approach or assumptions or principles.

I did it, you can too. I NEVER seriously argue a position without knowing as much as I can about an issue, and coming to my own conclusions.

If I'm bothering to say this to you, it's because I have enough respect for you that I'm sure you can do it as well, and will be worth talking to on the subject when you do.

Again, if you can't be bothered to do that, we have nothing to talk about".

If someone is worth talking to, they will. Otherwise I know I can ignore them.