Sunday, December 18, 2016

Convincing People You Are Right (And They Are Wrong) - Part Three

Alright, so we’ve worked through a few concepts to help figure out if our opinions line up with reality, so our next step is to figure out how to structure these ideas in a simple, logical manner. This might not seem important, but it will be something I return to in a later post. I also want to point out that this is a pretty basic overview of how to build a deductive argument—I realize there are other types of arguments (inductive), but I find deductive to be the most useful for our purpose, and I want to try and limit your boredom.

So how do we go about setting up an actual argument? What we need to do is write out a series of statements, called premises, which will lead to our conclusion. If our premises are valid, meaning that they are true, then our conclusion will also be true. For example:

Premise 1: Stubby is a cat.
Premise 2. All cats are mammals.
Conclusion: Therefore, Stubby is a mammal.

Nothing too crazy. Both premises are true, so we can be confident that the conclusion is also true. Now let’s add a little twist to it.

Premise 1: Stubby is a cat.
Premise 2. All cats are black.
Conclusion: Therefore, Stubby is black.

Like the first example, this argument is completely logical. It is absolutely true that if Stubby is a cat, and if all cats are black, then Stubby is black. But the obvious problem is that not all cats are black! As a result, the conclusion is false.

When formulating and analyzing arguments, break them down into their premises and conclusion. Not only will this help you better understand your own argument, it will give you the opportunity to really investigate whether or not each premise is true. Let’s take another example that at first seems simple, but then becomes much more complicated once we scratch the surface.

P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.
C: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Easy enough. There are only two premises which both seem true, and they logically flow to the conclusion. You probably are convinced by this argument, as it seems fairly straight forward. However, let’s expand the first premise to make it a bit more specific.

P1: Whatever begins to exist in space and time has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.
C: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

When we add the clarification of “in space and time”, things suddenly don’t seem so simple. Of course, one might object, saying “Zak, you just changed the argument, so of course it doesn’t work as well anymore.” But notice I didn’t actually change the argument—I just exposed a hidden assumption in the first premise. When we talk about something beginning to exist, we are talking about things within the universe—within space and time. There are also a few more hidden assumptions.

P1: Whatever begins to exist in space and time has a cause that obeys the laws of physics.
P2: The universe began to exist independent of space and time, and not according to any laws of physics.
C: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

At this point, the argument is just getting crazy, and completely breaking down. You may have been convinced by the first version of the argument, but as we teased out more and more hidden assumptions, you may have become more and more skeptical, until the whole thing fell apart. We will return to the importance of this point in a later post.

The lesson I want to stress for the moment is that we need to be very careful with our premises! Make sure that we aren’t sneaking in any hidden assumptions, or overlooking something that, if pointed out, could cause our argument to collapse. As I explained in previous post, trying to argue for something that isn’t true doesn’t help anyone.

When constructing your argument, you want it to be as simple and solid as possible. You aren’t limited in the number of premises you can use, but I recommend trying to limit the premises to as few as possible, to try and prevent anyone finding something to make a fuss over and break your argument apart. Let’s look at another example for practice:

P1: Genetically modified crops can grow better in areas that other crops couldn’t survive.
P2: Having more crops will prevent more people from dying of starvation.
P3: Preventing starvation is will help make the world a better place.
C: Therefore, genetically modified crops are good.

Look over each of the first three premises, and consider whether or not they are true. Are there any hidden assumptions? And if so, what are they? 

Let’s take the first premise. This is absolutely not true. Yes, SOME GM crops can grow in harsh environments, but not all can. Some crops are engineered for other things. As such, we need to change that premise to something more specific, such as “GM wheat can produce much more grain than traditional strains of wheat.”

The second premise seems pretty straight forward and true, though, since we are now being specific, we should update the language to be just about GM wheat, and not GM crops in general. As for the third premise, more food means fewer people will be hungry, and the less people are hungry the better. However, “better place” isn’t very specific. In what way do we mean things are better? We should clarify that. At this point, our argument is:

P1. GM wheat can produce much more grain than traditional strains of wheat.
P2: Having more wheat will prevent more people from dying of starvation.
P3: Preventing starvation will help reduce pain and suffering in the world.
C: Therefore, genetically modified crops are good.

The argument looks pretty good—but we don’t want any room for error, and that conclusion seems pretty broad. The premises are discussing wheat, but suddenly the conclusion busts out genetically modified crops in general. Sure, many GM crops might make the world a better place as a whole, but we don’t want to leave the door open to anyone who may have an example of a GM crop doing harm. To prevent that, we need to update our conclusion so that it’s more precise and more accurate. Our final argument would look like this:

P1. GM wheat can produce much more grain than traditional strains of wheat.
P2: Having more wheat will prevent fewer people from dying of starvation.
P3: Preventing starvation will help reduce pain and suffering in the world.
C: Therefore, GM wheat is good for the world.

Are there any hidden premises left? Sure. The first premise is stating that GM wheat can produce more grain than traditional wheat in certain environments. However, if you were to add that detail in, unlike the argument regarding the cause of the universe, it doesn’t disrupt the rest of the premises or conclusion.

I realize that formulating your argument, breaking down the premises and conclusion, analyzing and critiquing your premises to make sure that they are true, and then reformulating your argument… isn’t very exciting. However, as I mentioned before, this process will help clarify your views and hone in on what you are trying to argue. If you are struggling to fit your argument into a handful of premises, your argument may be too vague, which will force you to rethink it. Either way, it’s an important step in helping determine if you are right or not—or at the least, if your argument makes logical sense. All of this will be extremely helpful when trying to convince others that you are right, and they are wrong.

While making arguments, we need to watch out for logical fallacies. If we accidentally slip a fallacy into an argument, a keen observer will pounce on it, and use that as a reason to completely dismiss the point you are making. As such, you must be diligent! 

There are tons of fallacies, and I have no desire to go over all of them. Instead, I am going cover one that I’ve seen pop up more and more frequently. In future posts, I will probably mention others, but in the interest of not boring you too much, I will try and space them out.1

The Genetic Fallacy. This is the mistake of going after the origin or source of topic or argument in question, rather than the topic or argument itself. Creationists have been doing this for years--they don’t accept arguments from biologists, because the researchers are a bunch of atheists. Similarly, many atheist mythicists (atheists who don’t think Jesus existed) will often discount what New Testament historians say, since “they are a bunch of Christians, so they are biased.” Some feminists don’t accept arguments from certain fields of science, because the researchers are often men. Holocaust Deniers won’t accept evidence from historians, since they are apparently a bunch of Jewish sympathizers. Every ideologically based group will try and dismiss dis-confirming evidence any way they can, and that often means by trying to discredit the source.

When criticizing an argument, the ONLY acceptable approach is to go after the logic of it, or the methodology of the research. If Big Tobacco funded a study which finds that nicotine isn’t addictive, it’s not enough to say “well of course that was the conclusion. I don’t believe it, since Big Tobacco had their stinky hands all over it.” While such a conflict of interest is certainly a reason to be skeptical, you actually have to look into the methodology of the research and explain why it’s wrong, before you can claim that the research or argument is false. 

The above examples discuss the mistake of going after the source of an argument—but there is also a very common mistake of people going after the origin of something (usually words) to try and argue against an idea. For example, “you shouldn’t say Happy Holidays, since holiday comes from ‘holy day’, and not everyone is religious.” Well, sure, holiday did originate as meaning holy day, but language is extremely fluid, and changes constantly. As such, saying “holiday” no longer means HOLY day. Likewise, “Christmas” did originally refer to the Christian holiday, but it’s changed so much in secular culture that to many people, it's about family, presents, decorating an evergreen tree, Santa Claus, etc—all things that have nothing to do with Christianity.

I find that people struggle with this quite frequently. If you tend to question if it’s okay to say a certain word, because of what it meant at one time or another, consider the fact that “bad” comes from the Old English word “baeddel”, which meant a hermaphrodite, or womanish-man. You must consider what a something means or refers to in its current context, rather than its origin.

To wrap up, remember that if your argument can be laid out in a logical manner that doesn’t commit any fallacies, you can be confident that you have a good argument. If you try to discredit someone’s argument based on who made it (a fallacy), you aren’t going to get very far. On the other hand, if you are trying to advance an argument on the basis of who said it (rather than on the logic and evidence of the argument), you won’t get very far either. Similar to the Richard Feynman quote, if your argument disagrees with logic, it’s wrong. That's all there is to it.

In the next post, we will discuss a few helpful concepts from psychology that we should always keep in mind when working towards to goal of convincing people that we are right, and they are wrong.

1. If you're interested, this site covers the most common fallacies.

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