Thursday, August 03, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #2: How to Sound Reliable

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 useful advice. (No mixed metaphors this time, good!)

Today I'll be covering what you can do to sound reliable. Why is this important? Because if you don't sound reliable, people won't listen to you. Your arguments may simply be hand-waved away, sound as they may be. At the worst, people may come to suspect the opposite of what you say, simply because you said it.

This time, I've actually got a few different tips for you:

1. Don't lie
2. Watch for logical fallacies in your reasoning
3. Cite your sources
4. Admit your errors

1. Don't lie

As one professor at my university said, "The most common fallacy is the 'fallacy of lying.'" People often have hidden agendas behind their arguments. To fulfill these agendas, they'll sometimes make arguments that they know to be fallacious in order to lead people to think what they want them to think (see: Sophistry). More often, they simply take the easy route and lie about the facts.

Neither of these should be done, but lying is the more counterproductive of the two. When an opponent spots a lie, it is a lot simpler to simply point it out than it would be to explain a logical fallacy. The public is also a lot more likely to be able to comprehend the explanation of the lie and what was done wrong. You'll simply be labeled a liar by them and that will be the end of it. Being known for lying is also generally perceived as worse than being known for making deliberately fallacious arguments (even though both are ways to deliberately misrepresent reality).

So, in short: Don't do it.

2. Watch for logical fallacies in your reasoning

Many people make logical fallacies simply because they don't know any better. The only way to fix this is by learning what they are, and for that I refer you to The Fallacy Files. There's a lot there, but it's all worth reading when you have the time.

The rest of the time, logical fallacies are committed intentionally in order to lead the audience to your desired conclusion. This is often harder for the opponent to debunk than simple lies, as the audience must be educated in why what you did constitutes a fallacy rather than simply pointing out a contradiction between what you say and reality.

The flip side to this is that it is a lot easier for a smart opponent to spot a fallacy than it is for them to spot a lie. In order to spot a lie, they need to be educated in that particular field. In order to spot a fallacy, they merely need to be educated in logic and critical thinking. For instance, I know little about evolutionary biology, but I'm still able to spot fallacious reasoning used by many creationists.

So, in short: Don't do this either.

If you're wondering what you are supposed to do if you can't support your point without lying or using fallacious arguments, I have a simple response. You shouldn't be arguing that point. Find a point that is arrived at by using facts and good logic and support that.

3. Cite your sources

A recent study shows that negative speed (that is, going backwards in time) is a reality - for light if nothing else.

Believe me on that? Probably not. It seems outrageous, and I'm just a random blogger. However, what if I said:

A recent study shows that negative speed (that is, going backwards in time) is a reality - for light if nothing else.1

Know what that little superscripted 1 is? It's a citation. My seemingly outrageous claim is backed up by a reputable source confirming it. The "Yeah, right!" response has turned into a "Whoa!"

The first rule I use for citations is, "Assume no one has any reason to take your claims as truth." Of course, this may not work for you, particularly if there is a good reason for people to take your claims in a particular area as truth. This doesn't mean that every claim about reality should be cited, as many are simply common knowledge. You can't be expected to provide a reference confirming that the sky is blue, now can you?

The second rule I use for citations is, "When presenting matters of fact, cite the enemy if possible." This way, even if the source is proven to be inaccurate, it's a point in your favor. If it's not possible to cite the enemy, use a neutral source. Using a source that supports your position will open you and them to claims of bias.

For an example of this, look back to my Render unto Caesar [nothing] post. I used citations for two quotes from the Bible. What words are in the Bible is a matter of fact (well, a particular version of the Bible, at least), and any site should agree on this. Since my argument could be perceived as anti-Christian, I used a distinctly pro-Christian website as a source. If they turn out to be wrong or purposely distorting the quotes, I can turn this around into a point against them anyways. Plus, Christians are a lot less likely to attack the credibility of my source this way.

The final rule I use is, "When explaining the theory or opinions of a group, cite that group if possible." The reasoning behind this is that if you cite their enemy's description of them, you run a high risk of describing a Straw man argument. Unfortunately, some theories, such as Time Cube, are simply incomprehensible from the explanations of their proponents. Others are veiled in secrecy by their proponents, like Scientology. For either of these cases, a second-hand source must be used in order to give an accurate description, and a neutral, non-critical source is best. (Wikipedia is generally good; neutrality is one of their main goals.)

4. Admit your errors

One thing I really respect about The Bad Astronomer is that he'll always publicly admit when he makes a mistake on his site. He'll edit it in so that it shows the correct information, but he'll make a note that it's been changed and preserve the original text. Contrast this with what you see happening on too many woo sites to mention, where the claims are changed frequently when they're found to err (often towards being vaguer rather than truer), yet no mention is made. These people are trying to present themselves as infallible, which is a lie itself.

Imagine you're in a position of hiring one of two people for a job. You ask each of them, "What do you do when you find out that you've made a mistake?"

The first says, "That never happens; I don't make mistakes." (" time I thought I did, but it turned out I was actually correct.")

The second says, "I correct it and take note of it. If the mistake was told to anyone else, I make sure that they know I was wrong so that they won't pass it on even further. I also try to figure out what might have caused me to make that mistake in the first place, so I won't do it in the future."

If you believe that human beings can be perfect, then you might hire the first person. But if you admit that everyone has some flaws, you'll hire the second person without another thought. The person who learns from their mistakes and tries to correct them is going to a lot fewer mistakes slip through in the end than the one who denies making mistakes at all.

On a final note, the reason we communicate at all is so that others will listen to us, and if people stop believing you, they're going to stop listening to you. Give them reasons to believe you.

* * * * *

Distilled Wisdom Index


TheBrummell said...

Another excellent post. Thanks.

Nes said...

The second rule I use for citations is, "When presenting matters of fact, cite the enemy if possible."

I agree with this whole heartedly. I'm not very good at explaining things verbally, so I end up sending people to websites. Recently, a family member of mine was convinced that there were spirits or ghosts or something in a picture they took (classic "orbs"). I tried to explain what usually causes orbs, but I did a bad job and the person wasn't convinced. Now, I could have sent them to Randi to read up on them, but I don't think they would have been impressed. So, I did a search for orbs on google and sent them to a site run by ghost hunters that demonstrated how orbs are usually formed in a picture, and thus why the ghost hunters don't accept them as genuine ghost pictures. I think that made a much more powerful argument than Randi or other skeptical sites would have.

On the flip side, I'd be much more persuaded that one of my beliefs was wrong -- and thus more open to reexamining it -- if I saw it come from Randi, Daylight Atheism, Skeptico, the 2% Company, etc., than from (or whatever).

Since this is my first time stopping by here, I just want to comment that I enjoy your posts on some of those various other blogs, and like what I've read here so far. Nice job.