They were wrong, ergo I’m right

[Since I’m out of town, this post was scheduled ahead of time to appear today.]

There are a lot of methods that fall under the blanket term of “critical thinking,” many of which are expressed in the Baloney Detection Kit, but if I had to pick one that I favor the most, it’s being able to deconstruct arguments. I mentioned before about the sound-bite style of arguing, which is common these days, but overall, many debating points are based on either subtly misleading statements, or simply on points that sound convincing. The tricks are to resist the direction that such arguments lead in, and to not allow the wording or posits to dictate how we approach them. But all that’s kind of vague, so let me be more specific.

Let’s say we’re talking about ghosts, and someone throws this down in counterargument to your point that we have little more than blurry photos and witnesses feeling spooked: “Scientists all said that the coelacanth was extinct, and they were wrong!” And by this argument, apparently they have opened the door for the existence of ghosts.

Now, you can have all sorts of fun if you simply say, “So? What’s your point?” in response to this, forcing them to detail the nature of their argument until it bogs down in illogic. Or you can grab one of thousands of subjects like, “Priests said that convulsions were caused by demonic possession, and they were wrong!” – it is vitally important to say this in as snotty a tone as possible to convey your message clearly. It’s childishly easy to find things that science proved wrong, and improved our lives drastically as it did so.

But this isn’t deconstructing the argument at all, which is just as much fun and conveys the idea that your own standards of debate are much higher. Start with the actual statement itself: “Scientists said the coelacanth was extinct.” But, to be truthful, scientists never said anything of the sort. We have fossil remains of a fish remarkably similar, quite possibly even an ancestor of today’s coelacanth, but the only reason that species (yes, biologists would certainly treat them as separate species) was considered extinct was that we had no living examples. The same thing can be said for trilobites, velociraptors, and great auks.

Which brings us to the second part of deconstruction, and the most effective. Scientists did indeed change their mind about living examples – once one hit the table in front of them. In other words, no one gave credit to the idea until it was firmly in evidence. And this is exactly how it should be – seriously, is it even worth considering having it any other way? Should we give credence to any and all eyewitness accounts, stories, anecdotes, and whatnot simply on the basis that they might be right? While this works just fine for the person arguing for ghosts and such, it also works peachy for those seeking investment money for the mineral rights they assure us that they have, and for the authentic holy artifacts that they’re selling, and the repair history on the used car that we’re looking at. There are plenty of people who would simply hug themselves with glee if we started giving them the benefit of the doubt, rather than treating their claims with at least some form of skepticism.

And of course, for science to accept something like a coelacanth, it takes more than even a detailed description from a villager. Taxonomy, biology, anatomy, habitat, diet, life span, habits, reproduction… this is the kind of information that we typically seek, for a multitude of reasons. So yes, evidence has to be distinctive and plentiful to be of the slightest use. That’s what science is: information.

And finally, even if scientists did indeed make such wrong claims, what bearing does this have on anything else? The argument is put forth as if, once one instance of inaccuracy is found, “science” can then be considered dubious at best. Again, you can turn this around on the arguer, pointing out that they have been wrong in the past too, so why should you even be listening to them now? While they splutter or fume, you can then go on to say that yes, mistakes do indeed happen – but the way we find them is not through mystics, psychics, intuition, or grabbing onto some arcane concept, but once again with evidence to the contrary. In other words, for every case where “science” is wrong, it is also right, because it took science to find the mistake.

Another subtle aspect of such arguments, which applies for very few other subjects, is the idea of scientists as a body of identically-minded people. Imagine if you argued about what “civilians” think, or “South Americans;” that “priests” were wrong, or “pilots” made mistakes – seems to be overgeneralizing, doesn’t it? This is an example of where we can be blinded by cultural concepts, assumptions and traditions that aren’t borne out logically.

All of this, from just one sentence. Sometimes arguments really are that full of holes, but you have to be alert, and willing to examine them, to find all of the fallacies. The frightening thing is, you should be doing the same with your own arguments as well. We can fall for assumptions and convincing-sounding debates too. We can’t make our point too effectively if we’re guilty of the same bad practices.

It’s important to remember that the goal is to be convincing, not to score points or win a round. When you deconstruct an argument, what you’re demonstrating is how invalid it is to approach topics in that way – this is not done triumphantly or as a challenge, and you’re not out to show someone to be ignorant. You’re just introducing them to the idea that arguments should be solid, not merely convenient.

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