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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 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.

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