Monday, October 23, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #3: How to Sound Reasonable (Part 1)

Welcome back to Distilled Wisdom, where I boil out all the impurities and useless information I've taken from the sea of knowledge and serve you up a nice tall glass of distilled wisdom!

Yes, it's been a while, but I'm finally getting around to doing the third part of this series. This time I'll focus on how you can be (or, failing that, sound) reasonable in online debates. This subject is quite a big one, so I'm going to have to split it into two sections.

Some of the advantages to sounding reasonable are obvious, such as that it makes people more likely to listen to your arguments. If you debate reasonably, people with opposing views might actually listen to you. If you debate unreasonably, they'll ignore or even mock you.

For instance, ever heard of Fritz Zwicky? No? That's because he wasn't very reasonable. He'd made a huge scientific discovery back in 1933, deducing the existence of Dark Matter, but he didn't get much regard for it, and the theory stagnated for quite a long time. No one was willing to work with him on it, so it got nowhere. The reason for this is that Zwicky was, quite simply, a jerk. He called all of his colleagues "spherical bastards" because "They're bastards whatever way I look at them."

Another important advantage to appearing reasonable has to do with the fact that internet debates take place in front of an audience. If you debate reasonably while your opponent is frothing at the mouth, the audience is more likely to assume that you've come to the reasonable conclusion.

So, enough with the "Why?" and onto the "How?":

In Part 1:
1. Don't yell
2. Answer all questions

In Part 2:
3. Don't pursue
4. Explain your logic
5. Hold back your insults

1. Don't yell

IS YOUR SHIFT KEY STUCK DOWN? THEN WHY ARE YOU TALKING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? One of the first things you should learn in internet discussions is that Caps Lock is the equivalent of yelling. Many veteran 'net users (myself included) mentally read capitalized words as yells. This is helpful if you want to illustrate that you actually are yelling about something, but incredibly annoying if you do it for no reason.

This can even be bad if it's used on individual words to add emphasis on them; they aren't interpreted as being emphasized, but instead being yelled out. Take the following paragraph, excerpted from a comment on Wikipedia's Telepathy talk page:

Selmo, this quote, "No amount of evidence is enough to convince a skeptic," further suggests you really don't understand how science and scientists work. Scientists are expected to remain skeptical until they see compelling evidence. And compelling evidence is NEVER based on the "amount of evidence." It is based on the QUALITY of evidence. While one well-designed and well-conducted experiment can convince most scientists, a million badly conducted experiments will convince almost none. And another point is in order: Wiki editors are NOT supposed to edit based on "faith." They are supposed to edit based on the best-sourced evidence they can find.

I happen to agree with the argument that this guy is giving, but his style leaves much to be desired. I chose this paragraph as it illustrates this particular point: Three words are capitalized for emphasis. They probably should be emphasized, but italics is much more appropriate. As it is, it's like he's yelling out those words rather than stressing them. Of course, this is just my personal opinion on the matter (hey, this whole blog is my opinions!), so you can take it or leave it.

Okay, so I've said that capitalization isn't appropriate for emphasis there, and that italics is. To give you a complete picture, here's my personal guide to different forms of emphasis:

Italics - Use italics whenever you want to simply stress a word as it's being read. Italicized words don't jump out at the reader until they come to them, so they don't divert attention like capitalization and bolding do. For instance, instead of the capitalization used in the paragraph above, the words should be italicized like, "It is based on the quality of evidence." Doesn't that look much better, yet still get the point across?

Other uses for italics:
  • In narrative writing, a character's thoughts are often italicized instead of put into quotation marks in order to distinguish them from what the character says aloud.
  • If the <blockquote> tag isn't available, italicizing a large block of quoted text helps distinguish it from your own.
  • Titles of books, movies, television series, and the names of newspapers and magazines should be italicized.
Italics can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be italicized with the <i> and </i> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [i] and [/i] instead, and wikis let you use pairs of apostrophes ('') instead of html tags.

Bold - Use bold text when you want a particular word or phrase to stand out. Watch how this jumps out at you. Be careful, however, as it can easily be overused. Making your entire post bold is like begging for attention, and just annoys people.

Other uses for bolding:
  • Bolding can be used as a virtual highlighter. If you're quoting a large section of text, and you want a particular section to stand out, you can make it bold. Just be sure to add [emphasis added] at the end.
  • Bold text is also convenient for titles, subtitles, and section titles. This helps make the titles stand out to the reader.
Bold can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be bolded with the <b> and </b> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [b] and [/b] instead, and wikis let you use triplets of apostrophes (''') instead of html tags. In general, text that you wish to be both bolded and italicized can be formed simply by using both tags (in wikis, putting five apostrophes (''''') before and after the text, the combination of the two tags, does indeed work).

Underlined - In general, underlining should be avoided on the internet, as it's easily mistaken for hyperlinks. However, it is generally appropriate in titling, either alone or combined with bolding. One other rare use of underlining is when your text will appear in a typeface which doesn't italicize noticeably. Here, it can be used as a substitute for italics.

Underlining can be applied in html by surrounding the text you wish to be bunderlined with the <u> and </u> tags. Some message boards require you to use the bracketed tags [u] and [/u] instead. Wikis generally have no special tags for underlining, though html tags may be used. Some message boards and websites prevent you from using underlining since it may be confused with hyperlinks.

CAPITALIZATION - Capitalization is very rarely appropriate. In most cases where you'll be tempted to use it, bold is a better choice. It can, however, be useful in titling on occasion. Also, when writing in a plain text medium that can't support other forms of emphasis, capitalization can be appropriately used instead of bolding.

Of course, if you actually are yelling, then go ahead.

EDIT: Ow, my mental ears! I found this excerpt from a chain letter presented in a post at the recent Skeptic's Circle. This is a really good example of what not to do:

These are just SOME of the things our Doctors never tell us. ONE out of every 55 women will get OVARIAN or PRIMARY PERITONEAL CANCER! The "CLASSIC" symptoms are an ABDOMEN that rather SUDDENLY ENLARGES and CONSTIPATION and/or DIARRHEA.

And that's not even the worst of it. For those equipped with mental-ear plugs, go check it out at the post.

2. Answer all questions

If you have the time, check out this trolled thread at Rockstars' Ramblings. In in, the troll tries to claim that Intelligent Design is scientific and "takes the supernatural out of the equation." I eventually got him to admit that ID requires a supernatural designer, but he then immediately started pretending he'd never claimed it didn't in the first place. (Hey, here's an extra tip to sound reasonable: Don't lie. I know I had it in my last Distilled Wisdom as well, but it fits here, too.)

At one point, Bronze Dog challenged the troll's claim that ID is scientific by asking him to show that it's falsifiable (one of the core criteria of science). For a long time, he completely ignored the question, even though it was repeated many times. Then, he eventually said that he'd answer it if we answered one of his, which had to be over on his blog (a ploy to get more traffic there, I suspect). His question turned out to actually be three, but I answered them anyways.

He still didn't answer. More arguments ensued. He used a ton of other poor arguing tactics, with plenty of deliberate misrepresentations of the truth (read: lies). Eventually, I gave up in disgust with his repeated lies and refusals to act rationally, so I left. Not long after, so did Austin Atheist Anonymous, who was also over there arguing with him.

Weeks pass. He realizes that we actually did leave, so in a desperate ploy for attention, he acts all magnanimous and answers the question he should have answered the first time it was asked. Except, there was still a little problem: he answered the wrong question. We asked what evidence would falsify ID. Here's what he gave:

To falsify intelligent design, it is enough to display specific, fully articulated Darwinian pathways for the complex systems that, according to intelligent design, lie beyond the reach of the Darwinian mechanism (systems like the bacterial flagellum).

Notice what he's asking for there. That's not evidence, that's an explanation. An extremely long explanation, at that. For the pathways to be "fully articulated," they'd have to include every single organism along that path, plus all of its competitors, and show why each step gives an advantage. Given the timeframe that evolution takes, this is obviously unreasonable. No human could possibly set this up within their lifetime. Ever heard the phrase "Moving back the goalposts"? Well, his goalposts just broke the speed of light.

* * * * *

Questions posed in a debate generally serve one of two purposes. The first and most common purpose is when the opponent is asking you to clarify some aspect of your position. Why should you do this? Well, first of all it's just plain courteous. Secondly, if you don't answer it, you're denying him or her information about your position. Doing this makes it harder for him to argue with you, but it's likely that anyone reading the exchange won't care about that at this point. What they will care about is that you're refusing to answer a simple question about what you're saying, and then using that lack of information on your opponent's part to squeeze out an advantage.

The other purpose a question in a debate can serve is to demonstrate that you can't answer it. If you ignore the question (like the troll mentioned above did), you're just proving your opponent's point. On the other hand, if you can answer it, doing so is significantly to your advantage.

There are problems with some questions, however, which makes a simple, direct answer impossible. Sometimes the questions will be assuming a false premise, such as in one question this troll gave: "Do [the new fossil finds] overturn Darwin’s bleak assessment of evolutionary theory?" The invalid premise here is that Darwin had a bleak assessment of evolution, which is patently false.

The question should still be addressed, however, and in this case it's best to first explain why the premise is false, and then address concerns in the question. In this case, I ended up answering this question as follows: "As I showed above, Darwin didn't have a bleak view of evolution... What these finds did do was support his hopeful view of evolution."

Other problems with questions should be addressed differently. For instance, if the question uses ambiguous terminology, it's best to ask for clarification on it. Use your best judgment, but never leave a question unaddressed.

* * * * *

Distilled Wisdom Index


Bronze Dog said...

Well said.

I need to use underline more often... except I can't seem to find the html for it. It's not a simple [u]Blah[/u].

austinatheist said...

Weapon should be feeling pretty lonely by now. I don't plan on posting anything more on his site. To do so at this point would be to grant him his inequitable terms. Anyway, if you could use some comic relief, then check out my latest post. Just go ahead and get out your wallet and find a Sharpie. Trust me. It'll be fun:)

austinatheist said...

Weapon says that you said "it is impossible to prove Darwinian Evolution." I say that what Weapon says is not what you said.

Those goal posts just broke my brain.

Infophile said...

You see, the problem is that, now that he's moving them faster than lightspeed, he can use them to violate causality. I'm sure he's planning to eventually use this to go back in time and change what I've said after he's cracked my password.

Nes said...

Bronze, I think blogger just blocks the <u> tag altogether (it works just fine in an HTML file I just made on my desktop). It won't let you use <span> in comments either, but on your blog you could try:
<span style="text-decoration:underline">underlined text here</span>

Assuming that <u> doesn't work when you make your own posts.

(I hope those <'s and >'s come out right, every time I previewed it changed my comment text from the HTML version to the characters you see, so I had to keep changing them back to HTML. Very annoying.)

Bronze Dog said...

Sounds like weapon has headed into the old "It's only a theory" ground.

Sure, my lightswitch works 99%+ of the time, but I can't guarantee it'll work next time, so there's no way to PROVE electromagnetism.

Infophile said...

All I did up there in my post was use the <u> tag, and it looks like it worked. It is disabled for comments, however. I had to disguise it with the character codes so the actual brackets would show up when I showed it a bit later.

For anyone interested, the character code for "<" is "& lt;" (without the space), and for ">" it's "& gt;" (again without the space).

TheBrummell said...

Thanks, Infophilia. Keep 'em coming, these are great posts.

I'm looking forward to part II.

Also, it's nice to see the technical instructions about how to italicize, underline, etc. Other sites have said similar things ("you should use bold here"), without detailing how.