“Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back providing aid and comfort to the enemy.”
– Eliezer Yudkowsky, Politics is the Mind-Killer
So – someone just made a disturbingly inane argument that seems to support your opinion, but which is just utterly wrong.
Do you ignore it? Support it, and hope nobody notices the critical flaw? Criticize it, at a risk of alienating a fellow supporter?
Ding ding ding! You’ve got to criticize it. Truth is the highest calling of the critical thinker. You’ll be doing your fellow activist a great favor in the long term by correcting him/her. And besides, how can you possibly maintain a high standard of personal intellectual integrity if you fail to fight back against illogic and garbage reasoning when it pops up right there in your midst? Insert your own flowery verse here. We all know what the right answer is.
But how often do we actually step in and say, “No, I’m sorry, but I don’t think your conclusion follows from that particular argument”? I hardly do it at all. Smile and nod; move on. It’s just easier. I can always be a rationality vigilante on the internet, right? That’s safer. I don’t have to see anyone frown. Nobody can raise his or her voice at me. The worst anyone can do is type a nasty word at me with the shift key held down.
There’s a real danger, here. Bad arguments inoculate against good ones. When you let a non sequitur float off into the discourse nether unchallenged, you’re taking the risk that someone impressionable is going to hear it and think “Well, that’s a load of rubbish. Is that the best those people can do?” It’s all the worse when you’re trying to defend an unpopular position – godlessness, say. And consider that there’s a selection effect at play – if you’re actually hearing someone making a bad argument, there’s a good chance that he or she is the type of person who tends to be vocal about the position.
We’ve all got to be part of the effort to hone our arguments. And there are two parts to this:
First: If you hear a poor argument, call it out. Take a social hit for the team. You’re doing us all a service.
Second: If someone else takes issue with your argument, don’t punish them. Whether you agree with their assessment or not, thank them for being willing to raise the issue. Consider the criticism with an open mind. One of the most impressive traits a person can possibly have is the ability to be gracefully wrong.
This is a guest post by Katie Hartman. She is part of the team putting together the Skepticon convention next week. If you’d like to make a donation to the largest free skeptic conference in the nation held in Springfield, Missouri, you can do so here. We appreciate your support!