Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I love a good duel

I love a good duel of words now and then. It keeps my mental blades sharp.

I have a lot of spare time at my job, and I spend a lot of it chatting with the other interns over e-mail. Sometimes we start to talk about more controversial subjects. This morning, I felt like livening it up so I sent off something that I knew would start some interesting conversation. To do this, I sent a slightly modified version of one of Al Franken's No Child Left Behind test questions:

How do you properly punctuate the following sentence?

“George Bush is the President who, in the name of God, will protect the children.”

A. (The sentence is properly punctuated.)
B. George Bush is the “President” who, in the name of God, will protect the “children.”
C. George Bush is the President. Who, in the name of God, will protect the children?
D. George Bush is the President!? Who, in the name of God, will protect the children?!

It worked like a charm. All the liberal minded said "Definitely D," while the conservative said "Definitely A."

I won't go into the details of the actual debate here; it's mostly a repeat of debates over 9/11 and what was known, what was said, and what was done. Instead I'll just give some comments on it. To protect his identity, I'll be referring to a certain person who played a prominent role with the false name "Steve." Steve has noted conservative views, and is often at odds with me in debates.

  • I was the only one to ever provide references for my claims. Despite this, Steve accused me of both using opinions in place of evidence and being overly confident in my claims. (As opposed to him, who was just as confident but didn't wave evidence in my face.)
  • Despite repeated requests to others to provide evidence for claims, no one ever did.
  • When Steve accused me of presenting my opinions as fact, I asked him where I'd done this and told him that I would gladly provide evidentiary support for any of my claims. He failed to provide any examples and instead pursued his accusations, saying that he could go and get an article saying anything. He never actually did so.
  • Many of the strongest points I made (in my opinion) and demands for evidence met with silence, and that thread of conversation was dropped. It seems to me that shutting up is an easy way to avoid admitting you don't have a response for an argument. This is why in debating competitions, an uncontested point is accepted as being conceded.
  • It turned out that Steve and one other person who had republican leanings were also believers in the Bible Code. I provided a quick reference to a debunking of it, and this thread of conversation promptly shut up. Many of the points I made were about supposed lies of the Bush administration, and these two were arguing with them. Are both of these issues symptoms of the same lack of critical thinking?
  • There was a dispute over whether Americans were the most generous people in the developed world, or the least. I grabbed a source from the first page of a Google search which said that Americans donate the lowest amount of money to foreign aid per capita in the developed world, have one of the worst rates of donation/GDP, and yet believe they're the most generous (it was below just two sites in the .gov domain. I later checked them, and it seemed that they presented spin without comparative evidence). The person I was disputing this with claimed they'd searched for a bit, but didn't have time to look any more. At least in this instance they said that they were shutting up about it, even though they didn't explicitly concede that they couldn't find a contradicting source.
  • My "favorite" argument made against me: "But you can never know for sure…all I am saying is that just because the CIA thinks that they aren’t doesn’t mean that is actually true…people could talk about stuff and the CIA wouldn’t know." This was made by Steve in response to a claim that the CIA knew of no link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
  • My response to that argument: "And just because the CIA thinks the President isn’t a baby-raper doesn’t mean that it’s actually true, either.

    But anyways, note how you just conceded here that the government didn’t know for sure, yet they claimed that there was overwhelming evidence for the link, when in fact there was evidence against that.

    What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, LIE."

    Of course, there was no direct response to this. In retrospect, that might have been a bit harsh, but it wasn't personal (even if I was viciously mocking his argument).
  • There were a lot of pleas to not judge the president. I should be voting or running for office myself if I think I can do better. Well, I'm not yet a citizen, so I can't vote, and I can never run for office as I wasn't born here. And of the others criticizing him, what's to say that they aren't voting? And who says democracy has to end at the vote? We should always keep an eye on our politicians. If they're screwing up, it's our job to let them know. Patriotism is obedience in a dictatorship; in a democracy, it's vigilance.

The final point I'd like to make on this is that the debating styles of some of these people (particularly Steve) resemble greatly the styles used by many political pundits in the media. They use all the same tricks to support their case: evasion, failure to cite evidence, ad hominems, "Well of course you can never know for sure," and pleas to blindly support the president.

So, are they mimicking the people they see on TV? I doubt it. They may be repeating some of their arguments, but the more stylistic issues aren't mimicked as easily. I think that this is more just a natural way that people try to win arguments, stemming from childhood games of one-upmanship.

Perhaps this even leads to a more sympathetic view of political pundits with poor style. They might not be deliberately trying to skirt the truth, and might instead falsely believe that they're making a good case. Of course, we should still be sure to point out all of the flaws in their logic.

1 comment:

Bronze Dog said...

There were a lot of pleas to not judge the president. I should be voting or running for office myself if I think I can do better.

I'd never make it past the primaries. I'm an atheist in Texas.