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Tuesday, 09 November 2010 10:12

Lame, Lame Arguments

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I was struck this morning by a piece by Johann Hari in The Independent called “How to Spot a Lame, Lame Argument.” He writes persuasively about an argument strategy “spreading like tar over the world-wide web, and is seeping into the pubs, coffee shops and opinion columns everywhere.” It is created, he suggests, by people on the losing end of arguments, who, in a “disingenuous” attempt to save face/not lose the argument/ change the subject, blurt out “but what about ….?” This example of “but what aboutery” will no doubt seem familiar:

“So whenever I report on, say, atrocities committed by Israel, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: ‘But what about the bad things done by Muslims? Why do you never talk about them?’ Whenever I report on the atrocities committed by Islamists, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: ‘But what about Israel? Why do you never write about the terrible things they do?’ And so it goes on, whatever the subject, in an endless international shifting of blame, united in the cry: ‘What about them! Talk about them instead!’"

 What should you do when someone confronts you with “what aboutery?” Hari advises:

“the best way to respond to what-aboutery is to state a simple truth. Say it slowly: there can be more than one bad thing in the world. You can oppose American atrocities, and Chinese atrocities. You can be critical of Israel, and of Islamism. You can condemn Dubai's system of slavery, and the fact people are detained without trial in Britain. You can stand independent of governments - including your own - and criticize anyone who chooses to abuse human rights. The world is not divided into a Block of Light, and a Block of Darkness; you don't have to pick a tribe and defend its every action.

“So whenever you hear the cry ‘But what about?!’, you can reply: ‘what about we ignore this crude attempt to change the subject, and focus on the subject in hand?’”

I wonder if it’s that easy. I doubt it. But Hari’s concern for lame, lame arguments causes me to consider other examples of ill reasoning gone wild. For example, Don Lindsay has posted a helpful list of fallacious arguments, from ad hominem attacks on the character of the speaker to “weasel wording” that redefines key concepts by calling them something else, such as “a police action” for a “war.” These examples of fallacies will be familiar to anyone who has completed an argumentation and debate course.

That said and formal argument fallacies acknowledged for what they are, which is an assault on sound reasoning, I am less optimistic than usual when I consider the future of public argument in these divisive political times. For as practical as it is to be able to recognize fallacies and to name them, arguing about them is likely to accomplish little outside of a formal debate competition. Why is that? Have we become so tolerant of lame, lame arguments that we discount attempts to name them as such? Or is it that we are saying, collectively, that even through we know it’s a bad argument, or even a “lame, lame argument,” that it just doesn’t matter?

Hand me a handkerchief, please. I am about to weep publicly for Western civilization.

Just kidding. I do that sometimes and while it is no doubt it a mark of some kind against me as a sober adult going about the business of adult subjects in an adult manner, I, for one, maintain that even adults are allowed a little humor in the pursuit of truth. Notice, please, the small “t” on truth. You did notice that “t” didn’t you?

That last paragraph, my friends, was also an example of a lame, lame argument strategy. I could call it “deflection by humorous aside, ending with a question” and point out that what it succeeds in doing is to draw attention away from the serious subject at hand in favor of a self-depreciating aside that goes on long enough to cause the listener/reader to forget what we were discussing in the first place, then pose a non-question that begs for an answer that will, in almost every case, effectively change the subject. We will move from a consideration of whether bad arguments matter anymore to whether truth should be capitalized. Which inevitably leads to the whole modern/postmodern thing, which inevitably comes down to questions of Power, which then causes even philosophers to volunteer to buy drinks, just for an excuse to leave the table.

There are other fine examples of lame, lame reasoning. Consider, for example, a letter published this morning (November 9, 2010) from one Douglas C. Prasher to the editor of The Huntsville Times. Here is the whole of it:

Life Contradiction

I am in shock. What will our children think?

A Friday front page story in The Times had the implication that life started 4.5 billion years ago. This is a clear contradiction to the Lord’s word in the Bible. Let’s hope the newly-elected Tea Partiers put a quick end to such blasphemy in the “lamestream” media.

I don’t know Mr. Prasher but let’s assume for the sake of argument that he is serious. He may be. This is Alabama. And given that there are “newly-elected Tea Partiers” who have, in fact, pledged to return us to our Judeo-Christian roots, reestablish what has been for 234 years the obviously misguided separation of church and state based on their literal interpretation of the Constitution and Holy Bible, I can see how expectations among the evangelical faithful might well tend in this particular direction. That science—and let’s remember that Huntsville was a cotton town before Werner Von Braun and the rocket team built it into a high tech paradise—posits a far longer range of life on the blue planet than the usual 6,000 years claimed by creationists, is, for people like Mr. Prasher, just further evidence of what happens when human beings think we are smarter than the authors of the sacred word of Jesus Christ.

Or—hey, let’s give some wiggle room here for scientific accommodationists among the Christian faithful—perhaps the larger Truth (notice the capital letter?) is that while the earth itself may be billions of years old, God only put the breath of life into ol’ Adam and Eve 6,000 years ago. There. What about that?

No! It “what aboutery” again! It is a lame, lame argument. It conveniently sidesteps the essence of evolutionary theory and evolutionary facts. When Don Johanson discovered “Lucy” in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974 and established that she and her family of 13 afarensis lived about 3.2 million years ago, he wasn’t making the whole thing up. He did make up her name at the suggestion of his girlfriend who thought it was significant that the Beatles song “Lucy in Sky With Diamonds” played repeatedly that night. But beyond a simple and humane re-christening of her remains, the rest of the story and the dating of them is a matter of verifiable scientific fact. As is the superior interdisciplinary genetic detective work done at Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins, to trace where her ancestors and children migrated, probably in search of food and a better climate, into what we today call the Middle East and southern Europe.

Back to my original question, which, thanks to another sly deflection, I’m quite sure you have by now forgotten. To wit: “is it that we are saying, collectively, that even through we know it’s a bad argument, or even a “lame, lame argument,” that it just doesn’t matter?”

The answer, of course, depends on whether you think the “lame, lame argument” is the one made by Mr. Prasher or Dr. Johanson. It seems that when science and religion clash on the fundamental question of the evolution of human life, there can be no capital letter “T” on truth. Why is that? Is it simply because we cannot use scientific facts to disprove the authority of a sacred text, and because we cannot use a sacred text to call into serious question the findings of science? Or is it that we remain divided in ways so fundamental that our inability to reach consensus is, literally, exhausting. That our complete disagreement, forever and ever and ever after that, underscores that it just doesn’t matter. We’ll never agree. Or, maybe that it does matter, but there is nothing we can do about it.

What aboutery wins. Again.

And when “what aboutery” wins, it means that reasons fail us. Johann Hari wants us to believe that it can be corrected. That a simple statement of fact will suffice. But I disagree. There are cases of “what aboutery” that cannot be resolved in that way.

You can hand me that handkerchief now. For real.

And that is about as lame, lame, lame as it gets.

I once asked Don Johanson what was the most profound thing he had learned during his long and distinguished career as a scientist. “That we are utterly alone,” he replied. I should say that this exchange occurred on an otherwise brilliant day while we were sitting outside in downtown Tempe, sipping martinis under clear blue skies within earshot of a cadre of colleagues. Don is a social guy, and a genuinely wonderful human being. He enjoys life to its fullest, each and every day. Goes out of his way to help others. Is generous. Promotes justice. Loves his family. All of that.

Yet his answer to my question gave me pause. And it still does. It made me want to engage in “what aboutery” myself. But I didn’t go there. I know now as I knew then, before I had a term for it, that “what aboutery” is a lame, lame argument.

But what I did learn from thinking about that conversation was this: I believe in science and in evolution. And I still believe that, out here in the Milky Way among all of these magnificent stars, that using our knowledge to create a sustainable future, a better world for you and me, for all of us, is what ultimately matters. Because human progress matters. Anything else is “what aboutery” and is, therefore, beside the point.

Believe whatever you want to believe. I’m for it and will defend your right to believe in it, right up to the point where it gets in the way of what we can do for each other. That includes stem cell research as well as the cause of peace; promoting social justice as well as meaningful work at a fare wage for everyone. And it means greater support for education, for human rights, for the production of laughter, joy, and poetry.

These are important things we can do for each other and with each other. Instead of getting argumentatively bogged down with “what aboutery,” let’s try asking instead “what about that?” And then, because we can, let’s work together on achieving it.

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