The art of "debate"

This has been a long time coming. There are certain things that tend to happen when I discuss things with friends (or whoever) that tend to piss me off. There are things that I appreciate from my partner in discussion and certain expectations I have. I extend certain courtesies and I expect the other person to do the same. Below I will discuss what these things are.

First some DO’s and DO NOT DO’s of “debating” with me (for ease of language I will be using the form “you” to refer to the partner in debate):

State your argument/position and the evidence for it.

Expect me to be on the defensive about my position, content to answering long strings of questions about alleged “holes”, without you stating your position.

Know about science if you are to argue about science. Not everything can be scientific. Science has a particular definition of what is and is not science, just like there is a particular definition of what is and is not a spoon.

Expect to get away with an argument from ignorance. It is not acceptable to ignore data you don’t like. It is acceptable to reject data that has been shown to be false.

Realize that as a skeptic, my mind will change with the evidence.

Assume that my position on any topic is fixed/static or that past statements of mine are my own unchanging gospel. Therefore, the use of my past statements as an argument against what I’m saying now is neither accurate nor acceptable.

Realize where my expertise lies and where it does not.

Expect me to be an expert on all topics. My inevitable inability to answer a particular question in a long string of questions does not mean that the entire argument, for — let’s say — evolution, falls apart.

Make a clear argument. This sounds a lot like the first DO, but what I mean here is: the premise of the argument should be true and the logic between the premise and conclusion should be sound so that the conclusion makes sense. (More on this below.)

Commit logical fallacies or get offended if I point them out. I’m not doing this to appear “smarter” than you, I’m doing this so you can strengthen your own argument. If your logic is flawed or your premise is wrong, perhaps by fixing those things you can develop a better argument in your favour.

Realize I’m human. I may make a fallacious argument myself at times without realizing I have done so. Point it out. It’s only fair.

Gloat and assume you’ve won the argument because I committed a logical fallacy.

Realize that I am an individual.

Say anything like “You’re a skeptic so you should believe Z, behave like Y, and say X.” I am the governor of my own “beliefs”. My identification within an organization does not mean that I don’t think for myself. I disagree with Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, etc etc on some things and they do not have freedom from criticism in my eyes. So please don’t assume I am suffering from hero worship just because I promote their websites or use them as sources for certain appropriate topics.

These are just a few things that I thought of today. I may come back and edit more in.

Ok, now a summary of the structure of an argument. When we argue or defend a position, we are taking these principles into account whether we know it or not. It sounds pompous for a skeptic such as myself to point this out, but the idea behind pointing out the structure of an argument is to avoid wasting time and improve the structure of the whole debate. I would wager many people have been in a situation where they were discussing something controversial and something the other person said made them wince and sputter. They weren’t sure why, but they knew that statement was infuriatingly nonsensical and wrong somehow. They may have encountered a logical fallacy.

An argument consists of 3 basic components: the precedent, the conclusion, and the connection between those 2 things.

The precedent: This is an assumption of truth that leads to the argument you’re making. For example, “The colored gas seeping into this elevator is poisonous.” (Trying not to make this too boring.)

The conclusion: This is the statement of your position that you’d like the partner in debate (I’m purposely avoiding the term “opponent” — debates don’t have to be fights) to agree with. For example, “We should leave the elevator immediately.”

The connection: This is the logic used to get from the precedent to the conclusion. For example, “Poison is deadly so if we stay here we will die.”

When the logic used in an argument is not sound, this is called a logical fallacy. The premise can also be faulty (a false premise). For example, maybe the gas is not poisonous. In these cases, the conclusion of the argument can be false. However, it is possible that the premise and logic they chose is false, but the conclusion is still true — just not for the reasons the arguer thinks. Thus, in an argument, evidence is important to demonstrate that a conclusion is true or false, outside of the argument structure alone.

This is how we learn how things work and why the argument “God did it” is not terribly alluring to skeptics who want to know more about the mechanisms behind things. For example, we know the sky is blue. So the conclusion “the sky is blue” is true. But the argument “God did it” is much less satisfactory than the argument “blue light is refracted down to our eyes more than other colors because of the curvature of the atmosphere”. Particularly as the latter argument is testable and backed up with evidence. Two true conclusions, two completely different arguments.

Here’s an example of a particularly bad argument, known as The Banana Argument or The Atheist’s Nightmare:
Bananas fit perfectly into human hands.
God designed the banana specifically for man.
Intelligent design is true.

The precedent for this argument (bananas fit into hands) is true, but it is based on false evidence. Bananas were genetically engineered by humans. They are a hybrid version of 2 naturally occurring inedible bananas. The modern banana is sterile and requires cultivation by us to continue. The logic (God designed the banana for man) is obviously faulty because man designed the banana. Thus, the conclusion (ID is true) is probably false. It could be true, but not based on this particular argument. One false argument does not mean the entire idea of ID is false. However, we do know ID is not true because mountains of evidence demonstrate that it is not.

So you will often hear skeptics “bleating” on about this fancy evidence. That is because evidence is an important component to an argument. Non-evidence (i.e., “holes”) is not an argument against anything. Anomalies are good to consider, but generally they represent 1) an avenue for further learning, and 2) a worthless distraction — depending on context.

I think that’s all I’ll say about this for today. So if anyone wants to discuss anything with me, they are more than welcome. However, I will hold that person accountable for being informed, intelligent, and evidence-based. Otherwise we are not arguing on scientific grounds and I will not argue science on non-scientific grounds.


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