Archive for March, 2011

On Civil Discourse: Part IV – Building Your Case, Mathematically

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , , on March 17, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

Many people have no idea how to construct a good argument. I say this because I have argued with them and they lack logical skill. They aren’t stupid people, they just have trouble with the math of logic. Yes, I said math. When I was in high school (such a brief time ago(cough)) I took a logic class. Like most of my classes, I exerted the necessary energy to pass and little more, but I do recall the mathematical plotting of arguments which I enjoyed. As an electronics technician, it means even more to me now. That’s right, electronics and logical arguments are tied together with my friend, Boolean Algebra. To keep it simple, I will just talk about AND and OR equations and for this brief illustration talk about two supporting proofs only. Also, for logic, it should be noted that in building an argument, each statement/clause has only two values: True (1) or False (0) (yay binary!)

Wait, come back. I promise I’ll make this simple. AND is multiplication so if your argument is built with AND both supports must be TRUE for your hypothesis to be TRUE. So, where X and Y are supporting facts and Z is the hypothesis:

X * Y = Z. Replacing X and Y for TRUE or FALSE (0 or 1) we can see how the math bears out.

1 * 1 = 1

1 * 0 = 0

0 * 1 = 0

OR arguments are addition. I know you think the very word AND implies addition, but logically and mathematically it doesn’t work that way. So using the same variables:

X + Y = Z

1 + 1 = 1 (I know you want a 2 there, but it’s TRUE or FALSE, logic does not allow for SUPER TRUE)

1 + 0 = 1

0 + 1 = 1

The point here is that for OR arguments, every support stands on its own so that only one need be true to support the argument. OR arguments are much stronger than AND arguments because of this. If you build a nice string of OR supports, you might lose multiple points and still win the debate. A long string of ANDs gets weaker with each point because all are needed to support the case. 

There are other connections between supports other than OR and AND, but these are the most commonly used. Be careful with ANDs; they require great support for each clause and can become cumbersome. Frequently they have the appearance of being convoluted as support is pulled in from various sources to prove a point and they can be easily broken unless the tied points are common known facts.

You can also string ANDs and ORs together:

Politician X said A but did B and said C but did D and said E but did F therefore Politician X is a liar.

Now to say X lied you only need to prove one contrasting set of facts, so though you grammatically use and, logically some of them are ORs. Using the same variables:

A AND B OR C AND D OR E AND F = L (for liar) Mathematically:

(A * B) + (C * D) + (E * F) = L

Especially when you are presenting in writing, diagramming your argument mathematically can help to show you weaknesses. It is impractical to stop a verbal conversation to do so, but try working out the math of your arguments after a discussion to help with improvement.  You can also diagram your opponents argument to help you see their weaknesses. Chances are, you will jump into the same hot button issue more than once, so if you can evaluate in between those times, you can get a different view of the arguments that will likely help you the next time around.

Now don’t you wish you would have listened in school when your teacher told you that math was a part of everything? I know this went into some abstract places for some of you; when I start talking Boolean algebra with my wife, her eyes glaze over like Krispy Kreme donuts and I have to start talking about fabrics and color schemes to bring her back. Really, it’s not that hard, and if you enjoy debate, it’s worth pursuing. Note: if you start digging in to Boolean, you will find that the symbols I used were not the common symbols used in this form of logic. I did this to simplify and if you decide to dig in, you will see I really did simplify. Even the basics can be powerful though if you learn how to use them.

Jacquard, earth-tones, pink, metallic, hmmm… Let’s paint the living room. Ok you’re back. I will get back to the civility next time when I discuss presenting your argument. Can someone get me a donut? I’m suddenly hungry.


On Civil Discourse: Part III – Clarifying and Rebuttal

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , , on March 8, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

After you’ve listened to your opponent, you need to make sure that you understand what they have said before you shoot into your rebuttal and on to your argument. As pointed out in comments of the last post, this is just as important, possibly more so, online as in verbal conversations. Failure to understand the position leads to poor rebuttal, and building your case without rebuttal can easily become a exercise in finding whose voice is loudest.

If your opponent has built a good case, a good test for your understanding is attempting to rephrase it in your own words, possibly  in the form of a question.

“Ok so you’re saying because of varying shadow angles on photographs, you think the moon landing was faked?”

Now if your opponent’s argument is not well built or possibly just the off-handed comment that is the initiator of a conversation:

“Obama is a foreign-born, Muslim, Communist, Liberal, Nazi extremist (who kills puppies)”

You may need to do some questioning to draw out their support. Simple questions are best for this: Why? What did he do that was “Nazi” like? How do you know he was foreign-born? Have you seen him eat a puppy? But chances are, the more blatantly insane and unsupported the claim is, the more likely this will result in a shouting match to see who is the loudest and therefore the winner. Here’s a friendly tip: ask your questions; if any of them are not answered, ask again with different phrasing. If you don’t hear the support for the argument after two attempts, disengage. It is not worth your time or energy to pursue this argument. Some rabbit holes are best left unexplored; they don’t all lead to Wonderland.

A note for online: considering the frequently slow speed of online conversations, this is an even more important time saver. Arguments are frequently longer and more thorough (especially if you’re in a good discussion group) and jumping the gun and replying to an assumption instead of clarifying can lose you days online versus the minutes you may lose in a verbal conversation. Think about this before proceeding.

Once you are clear on what your opponent has meant, it’s time to rebut. Rebuttal seems to be a lost art. Like grammar, spelling, and handwriting we have neglected this ever important part of good discussion. As indicated above, this is not the presentation of your argument and, regardless of the sound of it, it is not the replacement of a mannequin’s posterior. It is the meeting head-on and attempted defeating of your opponent’s argument. This is where you start knocking down their supports.

“You say that the multiple light angles needed to produce such shadows looks like a TV studio, but look at all the lights on the lunar module. They could have easily produced such shadows.”

Don’t try to build your own building first; knock his down. This helps avoid the piling of statistics, the weighing of mountains of evidence. In short, this can prevent added length by reducing your opponents ability to repeat himself. Think of the subject as a tract of land; I build a barn and call it a farm; you put a hydro-electric generator on the stream and call it a power plant. Who’s right? One claim needs to be knocked down, otherwise you could have two people making claims that are not exclusive claiming that they are.

A few of notes before I close:

First, don’t expect that everyone you talk to has read “Uncle Justin’s Pontification on Civil Discourse.” Actually, assume they haven’t; Uncle Justin doesn’t have a very large reading base. Anyway, you may need to prompt your opponent for a rebuttal to your argument.

“I understand your case, but you haven’t responded to the evidence I have given to my contrary conclusion” (please don’t talk like this; it’s just an example.)

Second, you might need to rebut your opponents case before you can push a rebuttal from them. I must make a confession: one of the things I looked at for this series was some of the more uncivil back-and-forth comments on this blog. When a respondent did not rebut, I called the him on it but I should have also rebutted his argument. Instead what transpired was his continuing to prop up his claim and me saying he was not rebutting mine. It degraded rather quickly and was quite contrary to the civility in discourse that I aspire to and I would thank you to not bring it up again.

Lastly, assault the argument, not the speaker. Even sideways or back handed comments like “well you just don’t understand” are not beating the argument; they are just pompous, arrogant bloviating; a  slightly nicer way of saying “you’re stupid.” For the record, throwing a “bless your heart” in doesn’t help (my southern friends know what I’m talking about.) My favorite slice that I’ve received in a theological debate was “you’ve just been sold a bad bill of goods.” So I got the added bonus of not only being called stupid, but being told that those whom I had listened to and trusted were the clergy equivalent of used-car salesmen (no actual assault on the arguments was ever made in this discussion and, surprise, it went south fast.) Never good, don’t do it.

Remember, the head-on confrontation that is a rebuttal is paramount in moving conversation forward. You may go back and forth a bit on views of a particular support; that’s ok. It will still be productive, or more so than skipping this step would be anyway. If you have trouble confronting, remember that you are going after the argument not the person. This confrontation is necessary for civil discourse. Without a rebuttal, you can easily draw parallel lines of reasoning; never meeting, never crossing. I encourage you: cross those swords; be perpendicular.

On Civil Discourse: Part II- Listening

Posted in Politics, Religion, and Society with tags , , , on March 2, 2011 by Justin S. Smith

In case you missed it, Part I is here.- J.S.S.

So you’ve decided to get in the ring. The most important thing after this decision is listening to your opponent. Too many discussions go astray because one or both parties don’t take the time to hear the opposition. I have been guilty of this myself and will likely be again in the future. Without listening your arguments will be weaker and you will tend to build on one point or repeat yourself ad nauseam instead of listening and answering the arguments and rebuttals of your opponent. In online and email discussions lack of listening is a lack of reading, skimming across a message and responding to what you think they are saying. What is meant as a time saver becomes a huge time waster.

The first pitfall to avoid is in interrupting to rebut anything you might disagree with. Until they are done, you are basing your rebuttal on an assumption of where they are going, not the reality of their actual argument. I am reminded of the child that was instructed to give a sentence starting with the word “I”:

“I is” the child started and the teacher promptly interrupted, “I am, always say ‘I am’” said the teacher. “Ok” said the child “I am the ninth letter of the alphabet.”

Your opponent may not be going where you understanding predicts, let him speak. You may learn something or you might hear something so bafflingly crazy that your argument proves much easier or absolutely unnecessary. You will never know if you don’t let them finish.

Having given much thought on the matter of interruptions, I have found only two times when I see it as being permitted. The first is when your opponents rebuttal completely mischaracterizes your argument or makes it clear that they didn’t understand what you were trying to say. This interruption is ultimately for saving time by correcting a disconnect that will lead to parallel arguments. If this is necessary, you should assume that the misunderstanding is the fault of your own communication skills and not the lack of intelligence of your opponent. This humble approach should help keep emotions in check. You should also try to be quick and concise in your correction (you are, after all, on their turn,) and then turn the discussion back to them.

The second cause for interruption is if you really don’t understand what they are talking about. Perhaps they reference something foreign to you or use a word you don’t know and can’t glean the meaning of from context. This happens frequently when talking to Dennis Miller. Again, I think it is important to take responsibility for this; tell them you want to follow and understand what they are saying but they lost you when they said “x” then let them explain and continue.

The second big temptation as a listener is spending time building your own argument. Your opponent may start talking and you’re thinking about what you could have added to prop up your argument. You hear where they start and it sounds familiar so you start putting together all of the “fool proof” arguments you know against what you think they are saying but miss the nuance of what they say. You end up arguing from assumptions because you weren’t listening. You may even look like an idiot. Online this happens when you do all of your research for your next point before your opponent responds. You build your case and regardless of what they say, you run with it. Your argument will be better built to oppose their argument if you actually hear what they say. Also it helps eliminate the need for interruption exception one when it’s your turn to deliver.

The most important thing to remember is you decided to get into this conversation by either initiating or engaging the initiator. Listen. Give them time to speak and pay attention to what they’re saying. You likely will never convince anyone that they are wrong about their personal dogma, but if you hear where they are coming from you may be able to get them to think harder about their support. You may even be surprised to find out that the view you oppose might be well thought out. If you don’t listen you’ll never know.

I don’t put the full responsibility of listening on the listener. There are things that can be done on the part of the speaker to help them maintain attention. I will cover this in the next part.