Saturday, November 29, 2008

Arguments and Bad Arguments

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion", "There's always two sides to an argument, "Well, that's their worldview and who are we to judge?"

One of the first fallacies that one should be acquainted with are invalid equivocation and inflation of conflict. There is a strong tendency in culture today to equivocate two sides as having equal standing. When I teach my students about evaluating positions, I argue that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, some opinions are more informed than others.

My students ask me sometimes whether there is any point in having an argument. Like Deborah Tannen, in her book Is Everything An Argument?, there is a prevalence to think of arguments as negative, bitter battles between sworn enemies. But such a view is very narrow. Anytime a business owner-to-be writes a business proposal, they are arguing the merits of their business. Whenever we learn something new, we are learning positions that are backed by evidence that supports the theory. These arguments are not equivocal to an argument between to hydrophobic, misanthropic, tutu-wearing midgets on Jerry Springer.

All arguments are not the same. Some arguments rely on radical skepticism, e.g. those who question whether a chair actually exist. Some rely on emotions and guilt. Others rely on fallacies to make their point. So, when it comes to evaluating arguments we need to set a few ground rules.

First, argument should be based on some form of converging evidence. The point of having an argument is to persuade someone else to adopt and support a position. The rules of reasoned argument is the only way to accomplish this goal.

Second, when there is a disagreement, the counter-arguer needs to provide an alternative explanation. Thus, one cannot simply argue that position A is wrong without positing any alternatives to A. If one does posit an alternative position then they are arguing a "cryptic" position, i.e. an unstated position. If there really is no alternative position to argue from then there is no reason to engage in disagreement at all.

Finally, a form of Occam's razor should be used as a basis for evaluating burden of proof. In essence, this means that the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. If a counter-argument has a crazier alternative theory, then the burden of proof lies with the counter-argument. Thus, if the dominant position is the one that best explains all of the evidence, the alternative theory needs to provide an argument that better explains the evidence, not the other way around.

So, those of you who read and reply to our blog, please let us hold these standards of argument in our lives. I won't make you, of course, since you are entitled to your own opinion. (Just not as entitled as I am to mine.)

These are the words of Dr. Skeptor...

1 comment:

PyroManicPhoenix said...

Very well put together, perhaps you could edit the second entry submitted by Flying Pig. I would like to understand what's being said in the second post, but am sadly unable.