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Tag Archives: Dialogue

Guidelines for addressing controversial issues

Controversies are a staple of today’s world, whether on the news media or the minds of people dealing with changes and counter-changes, or charges and counter-charges. In most cases reporting of controversies is very poor. Partisans have a difficult time even understanding their opponents and make points that are often irrelevant. What follows are some guidelines for handling controversial issues that draw from my experience with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, intelligent design, and the creation-evolution controversy.

Informal fallacies to avoid

Arguing against a position that your opponents don’t hold. This is surprisingly common. It may make points with your side but is irrelevant to genuine argument and confuses those on the sidelines. Check out your opponents before arguing against them.

Arguing against a position held only by fringe elements of your opponents. This is also very common. There are always those on the fringe who have foolish ideas and are easily criticized, but so what? Arguing against fringe elements may make your opponents look bad but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. And they can make you look bad in the same way, so it accomplishes nothing.

Arguing against a position that is a poor way of expressing your opponents’ position. This is very common. People usually express their opponents’ position in their own words, which can be a way of showing that you understand the matter. But what if you’re wrong? Your opponents can simply say you’re arguing against someone else.

Insulting your opponents. Insults are so common they almost need not be mentioned. After all, what’s a controversial issue without insults? You may not even be aware of some insults, either by insensitivity or casual use of negative language. But your opponents can use the same tactic on you, and may be better at it. Trading insults accomplishes nothing good.

A good response

It is good to assume good intentions of your opponents. Much heat and little light characterize much writing and speaking about controversial issues. You may not like your opponents, you may even be suspicious of your opponents, but unless you have specific evidence of ill intent by leading advocates you oppose, don’t go there.

It is good to quote your opponents on their position, rather than only using your own words. You will need to put things in your own words but first quote your opponents so everyone can see you are not making this up. You should at least try to get their position right. This may be the most difficult part because you and your opponents see things so differently. But at least show you are trying.

It is good to focus on the most common argument that your opponents use. This is where the crossfire is focused. Whether it’s a strong or weak argument, your opponents have a favorite argument that is repeated over and over. It’s your task to take it apart and show how it is false or weak or non-persuasive.

The best response

It is best to assume the best of your opponents. You will garner good-will by assuming the best in others. For one thing it makes you look good. For another it is the right thing to do. Opportunities to speak will open up because of your gentlemanly or ladylike behavior.

It is best to quote your opponents liberally, being careful of their context. Go over something they have written and show in detail where it breaks down. Use their own words against them, without ignoring their context. That is a powerful and focused argument.

It is best to focus on the most persuasive argument your opponents have. Go after the best argument your opponents can muster and, if you can knock it down, your opponents will be permanently weakened if not defeated. Let there be a battle of your best against their best. That is the best way to settle an issue.

Articles about creationism

Articles about creationism (and to a less extent intelligent design) almost always misrepresent them for one or more of the following reasons:

(1) Articles about creationism don’t quote or reference documents by creationists. Instead they explain what the author thinks creationism is. However, the author is wrong about what creationism is and ends up arguing against a position that is not that of creationists, particularly of contemporary creationists. Articles about creationism typically represent creationists by a position that is two centuries out-of-date from contemporary creationism.

(2) Articles about creationism focus on legal matters and state or imply that this is the main thrust of contemporary creationism. That is false. Leading creationists and creationist organizations have never been focused on legal matters, which are in any case irrelevant to scientific and historical arguments. Furthermore, the curiosities of U.S. legal history have no bearing on an international movement. Articles that focus on legal matters are committing the red herring fallacy.

(3) Articles about creationism misrepresent the hermeneutics of creationists. Since creationists include the Bible as a key historical source of information about the nature and history of creation, hermeneutics is relevant to the discussion. However, articles about creationism almost always state that creationists interpret the Bible literally. This is false. No one interprets the Bible literally. No one interprets the first chapter of Genesis literally. Everyone agrees there are metaphors in the Bible. Creationists have written much about the proper interpretation of Genesis. This is completely ignored by articles about creationism, even many articles written for Christians.

Some belligerent articles against creationism actually are better than many general articles about creationism because belligerent articles may engage an actual creationist argument. In general there is little two-way communication about creationism (ID is better at getting some dialogue). Commentators that attempt to describe creationism have a long way to go.

Dialogue on induction

Greek Coffee

Philario was sitting in the coffee shop, typing into his computer when he saw his friend Hector and greeted him.

Philario:  Hi, Hector.  What’s up?

Hector:  Well said, Philario.  What is up.  Who is down.

Philario:  Are you trying to Costello me?

Hector:  I wasn’t Abbott to do that.

Philario:  Very funny.  I’m searching on induction.  Can you tell me what it is?

Hector:  It depends on what kind of induction you want.

Philario:  I want the kind of induction used in natural science.

Hector:  OK, say we’ve got this large urn. You put your arm in and as far as you can tell it’s full of pieces of pottery.  Then you pull out one piece, and it’s painted blue.  What do you conclude about how the other pieces are painted?

Philario:  I don’t know; they could be painted anything.  Perhaps they’re from a beautiful urn that broke in pieces.

Hector:  Now think like a natural scientist.  What do natural scientists say about nature?

Philario:  They say nature is uniform.

Hector:  So if nature is uniform, how are all the balls painted?

Philario:  They must be painted the same way.

Hector:  That’s right!  So the natural scientist says they’re all painted blue.

Philario:  But they could easily be wrong!

Hector:  Did you ever notice how often natural scientists change their opinions?  They don’t seem to worry about being wrong.

Philario:  Well, I would worry about being wrong.

Hector:  Then you’re not a natural scientist!  Now suppose you pull out another piece, and it’s also painted blue.  What do you conclude?

Philario:  There’s beginning to be a pattern.  So it’s possible they could all be painted blue.

Hector:  You need more confidence if you want to be a natural scientist.

Philario:  I didn’t say I wanted to be a natural scientist.  I just want to know how they think.

Hector:  So try thinking like one.  What do you say?

Philario:  I suppose I should say they’re all painted blue.

Hector:  Now do you have any evidence to back that up?

Philario:  I don’t have much evidence; only two pieces.

Hector:  But is there any contrary evidence?

Philario:  No, not yet.

Hector:  There’s no contrary evidence so no-one can say you’re wrong yet.

Philario:  That’s not much consolation.

Hector:  You need more confidence, my man!  You can prove your case by appealing to all the available evidence.

Philario:  But someone else might take out other pieces and find they are painted differently.

Hector:  Has that happened yet?

Philario:  No.

Hector:  So you’ve made your case for now.  No-one can prove you wrong.

Philario:  Now suppose you put your hand in and pull out another piece, and it’s painted red.  What do you say?

Hector:  I would say I was wrong about all of them being blue because some of them are red.

Philario:  That’s weak, much too weak.

Hector:  I could say based on the evidence two-thirds are probably blue and one-third are probably red.

Philario:  That’s what statisticians say!  You’re trying to think like a natural scientist.

Hector:  So what should I say?

Philario:  You should say there are two kinds of pieces in the urn.  One kind are all painted blue and the other kind are all painted red.  You might say that the blue kind are from a piece of blue pottery and the red kind are from a piece of red pottery.

Hector:  That sounds like a hypothesis.

Philario:  Yes, it is a hypothesis!

Hector:  So natural scientists make bold statements based on flimsy evidence and call them hypotheses.

Philario:  You might put it that way.  But remember they are careful not to contradict evidence, unless they want to say the evidence is erroneous.

Hector:  Why would they say evidence is erroneous?

Philario:  Because it gets in the way of a good hypothesis!

Hector:  So it’s all about making up hypotheses that sound good.

Philario:  You’re catching on!

Hector:  I think I’m too cautious to be much good at that.

Philario:  Have you considered becoming a statistician?

Hector:  No, do they like to be cautious?

Philario:  Boy, do they like to be cautious!  That’s probably all they do.

Hector:  They must eat sometimes.

Philario:  Probably.  But you can’t be 100% certain.

Hector:  I think I can be 100% certain about some things.

Philario:  Like what?

Hector:  I can be 100% certain that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Philario:  OK, let’s consider that.  What do you base that assertion on?

Hector:  I base it on the fact that it’s risen every time in the past.

Philario:  I didn’t know you were as old as time!

Hector:  Well, I haven’t personally witnessed the sun rising every day, but someone has.

Philario:  Who has?

Hector:  Other people.  There are records that go back to Babylon.

Philario:  What about before Babylon?

Hector:  Well, I suppose it must have risen before that, too.  We’ve got thousands of years’ worth of evidence that the sun rises every day.

Philario:  So there’s a high probably the sun will rise tomorrow.

Hector:  That’s what I said!

Philario:  No, you said you were 100% certain the sun will rise tomorrow.

Hector:  That’s virtually the same thing.  You’re not going to split hairs, are you?

Philario:  Of course I am!  We’re thinking like statisticians now.

Hector:  Oh no.  You mean statisticians are super cautious?

Philario:  Professionally, yes.  They’re paid to be hedge their bets.

Hector:  I don’t think I’m cut out to be a statistician either.

Philario:  You could always be a philosopher.

Hector:  Why is that?

Philario:  They can take any side of an argument!

Hector:  I think you’re better at that than I am.

Philario:  Study philosophy and you’ll get better at it.

Hector:  I’d rather have a latte.