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Stop agreeing with me like that

Don't you hate it when someone who disagrees with you uses stupid arguments to support their position? Like "Yeah, well, if global warming is true, how come it's snowing outside?!" Or "If evolution is true and we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?!"

Stupid arguments like those are "stupid" because they show the person has no real understanding of the issue. When your opponent pops out an argument like that, it's simultaneously great and awful. It's great because you now know you've won the argument, but it's awful because the other person will never admit it or even realize it and you'll be forced to argue forever, or just give up.

However, as much as I dislike it when someone uses a stupid argument against me, I absolutely hate it when someone uses a stupid argument to agree with me.

How so? Ok, so imagine that I'm discussing global warming with a group of people, and someone whips out the statement "I can't believe some people deny global warming: It's winter and it's super warm today!"

Imagine you're in the group of people. Imagine you're not really sure what to think about this whole global warming thing. You're not a scientist. You're not an expert. You just read the news and opinion columns. Then that doofus says global warming is obviously real because it's January and a somewhat-warm day. If you know anything about how science is supposed to work, you realize this is a dumb argument: surely scientists realize that it can be randomly warm? Your opinion of global warming supporters goes down a bit. Later you watch the news, and hear the newscaster say basically the same thing: This January has been a little warmer than usual, and therefore global warming is true!

If that's the best they've got, maybe none of it is true? Maybe these "global warming activists" are not all that bright? You might start to think the whole thing is overblown. Later, when a better argument comes along, you'll be that much more resistant to it because all the past arguments you know of where so dumb.

Now, there are sophisticated (and probably wrong) arguments for why anthropogenic global warming is not real, and sophisticated (and probably correct) arguments for why it is, but the dumb arguments on both sides do actual damage to their stronger cousins.

This same thing applies to many other fields. An obvious example is religion: I am not religious, and I often make arguments for why atheism is correct. I welcome the arguments of others who agree with me, but only if those arguments aren't total bunk. For example, when an internet atheist asserts that gods don't (or can't) exist because:

  • children die in wars.
  • there was no global flood / many things in the Bible are wrong.
  • certain religious people have done bad things.
  • religions are false.
  • disease exists.
  • evolution.
  • we have free will.
  • etc…

…it doesn't help because none of those things are good arguments for why atheism is true. Granted, all of those things might be true and useful in very specific contexts, like debunking specific religions or certain religious claims, but none of them are arguments for atheism. To be clear, an atheist can bring up those points legitimately if their opponent is making that side-argument, but if they're brought up first to support atheism directly, that's silly, and not helpful to "the cause".

I shouldn't even need to mention politics, but I will. Because politics is often a balancing game and there's usually no one correct answer, there are good arguments on most sides of most any issue… but the bad political arguments far outnumber the good, at least if we measure by airtime or decibel level.

If you are anti-legalized-abortion (or "pro-life"), you could bring up how there's no crystal-clear dividing line between "not-baby" and "baby" and therefore you feel we should err on the side of caution, OR you could just make up "facts" about how abortion causes cancer and is an extremely dangerous surgery. Then an opponent comes along and points out that abortion seems to have no association with cancer is actually many times safer than giving birth, and everyone watching laughs at those silly anti-abortionists.

Similarly, if you are pro-legalized-abortion (or "pro-choice"), you could show that there is actually a vast difference between a child and the kinds of fetuses which are typically aborted, OR you could just yell that anti-abortionists are just women-haters and religious and therefore anti-abortion laws are wrong. (Full disclosure: I am "pro-choice".) Then, anyone who actually personally knows anti-abortions might notice that they aren't women-haters and begin to wonder how those pro-choicers can be so dumb and mean. (Of course, there are other good arguments which could be made, these are just examples, but hopefully this illustrates my point.)

Long ago, in the dark ages of a few years ago, I used to be afraid to call out people for this kind of thing. After all, they're supporting my cause and I don't want to be rude. But over time I started saying things like "Honestly, that's not really a good reason to think it's true", and then I'd give a good reason to think it's true. Usually it's well-received as long as you're polite: people want to give good arguments for things they believe in, and you've presumably just given them a better reason than they had.

Of course, some things are just a matter of opinion or experience, or are otherwise extremely personal or subjective, so don't just shout down someone's personal experience with yours when there's no clear answer. It's hard to know the difference sometimes, so… tread lightly, I guess?

Also, it's really really really important that you are, you know, actually right. If you don't know what you're talking about, you're "helping" even less. I also had a problem with this back in the dark ages. I'd fire back easy (and simpleminded) arguments for "my side" pretty readily: you can probably find examples in this blog. I'm probably still wrong about a great many things, but I've evolved to be much less certain in arguing, to add more caveats, and to try to scrupulously frame my arguments to be as narrow and specific as possible.

Anyway, in conclusion, when you use dumb arguments to agree with me, you're "helping" in the same way a 3-year-old "helps" prepare a meal: not at all.

2014-07-20 #science   #religion   #politics   #skeptical-zen