Scene: a coffee shop where two people are in a heated discussion over a complex topic.
Galina: “So you can see that, generally speaking, this is predominantly the case!”
Bob: “No! What about this one time, that thing happened! That shows that you’re completely wrong!”
Galina, confused: “I don’t understand what that has to do with this?”
Bob: “Hey, this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m just being a Devil’s Advocate….”
This scene is all too common, and it’s immensely frustrating for people who have spent time and energy learning about a topic to be “refuted” by someone who knows very little. “Refuted”, though, is not the same as refuted, because Bob hasn’t actually offered a useful counterargument. No, Bob is just being a contrarian jerk. And contrarian jerks love to claim that they’re “just being a Devil’s Advocate”.
An acquaintance of mine sent me a link to a conversation between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, wherein Dennett attempts to explain the holes in Harris’s puerile arguments against the concept of “free will”.
In any case, this particular post isn’t about Harris, but a particular point he reiterates repeatedly: that we can (and should) change our beliefs “in real-time”.
This view, regardless of who holds it, is incorrect, and here’s why.
I recorded a podcast on srslywrong, and it was released last night. I’m fairly pro-GMO (generally speaking), so I was asked to take the pro-GMO side of a debate. It turned into more of a discussion of GMOs rather than a debate, and I’m pretty happy with the results.
I’m interested in feedback here, but bear in mind a couple things:
1) My background is not biology or science. I regrettably misspoke a few times in this (e.g. when I conflated genes for Roundup resistance with genes for the production of BT, and when I had a brain fart about bacteria being prokaryotes).
2) I’m not interested in yelling at people.
3) I’m interested in pushing broad strokes and general understanding, rather than devolving down nit-picky tangents. There’s a whole bunch of areas where I could have jumped down Eric/Cody’s throat for things that he said that I considered to be just plain ‘wrong’, but as they were tangential to the discussion, I left them alone. (and, to his credit, Eric/Cody cut me the same slack.
Click here to go to the podcast.
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[This essay is going to focus primarily on the skeptic/atheist community, as that’s the community I mostly interact with. I’m sure it holds true for others too, so don’t read this essay as me claiming that this is somehow unique to skeptics and/or atheists. Additionally, this essay only applies to people who want to discuss things with other people. If your preferred style of communication is lecturing people, and you’re not particular interested in changing (or even hearing) their position: this does not apply to you]
In the years that I’ve been involved in the skeptic/atheist community, I’ve noticed two tendencies that are, unfortunately, completely at odds with one another: making the claim that we really want to discuss things, and doing a massive information dump, laying out our ‘complete’ position on something in one go.
Not only are these two things in tension, they’re actually mutually exclusive. Here’s why.
How we argue with people sends signals to those around us. We are socially signalling the kind of person we are, and giving them cues as to whether or not they want to engage with us. This is, I think, an important point in rhetoric and persuasion, and can determine how we approach an argument. We can, of course, choose to remain ignorant of the signals that we send (thus sending the signal that we hold the people around us in contempt), or we can go too far and focus too much on ‘how’ the argument is presented such that the content is diluted to nothing.
An example of the former is a tweet by Secular Outpost (@SecularOutpost):
This is, frankly, sending up a flare that displays to all and sundry “I am a giant asshole, and I am not here for constructive conversation, but to have fun at the expense of those around me”. Disagree? Alright, let me walk you through it. Continue reading