Tag Archives: evidence

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What Reasons-Based Dispute Looks Like

Good counterarguments may slightly raise the chances of receiving a  thoughtful response.

In the previous post I noted that we have evidence suggesting that people do not change their views, even in the face of compelling evidence and counterarguments. One response is to give up and not even bother. Moving on from someone’s rage can preserve our sanity.

A middle course is to imagine what kinds of counterarguments can be made that will raise the chances—if only slightly–of receiving a thoughtful hearing.

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, it is good to pause and remember what a more thoughtful exchange of views should look like.

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To begin, in any exchange we would expect contested assertions to be backed up by evidence or evident good reasons. A person interested in rattling off opinions with no reference to sound reasons or evidence is not worth your effort. Even in an informal conversation we expect to hear compelling support for claims. A judge or a responsible policy maker would expect tangible evidence.  But it is true also our classrooms, where student debaters cannot simply offer unsubstantiated claims.

The basic unit of a counter-response is an argument. Its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. Those reasons may be widely honored values, or specific examples and–better yet–the testimony of experts who have a history of making accurate statements.  The quality of supporting evidence increases the force of an argument.

The claim “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud” is a common example.  If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I am uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are extremely happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind doubters.

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How can I meaningfully assert that the last election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence? I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the former President does with claims reworded to appear to be reasons. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right. Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”

                                    Because. . .

  1. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
  2. The administration’s head of cyber-security said so.
  3.  No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
  4.  Respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
  5. A vast array of American courts could not evidence of vote tampering, except for a scattering of Trump supporters (i.e., some fake electoral college delegates).

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he still “believes” some dead Democrats “voted” in 2020? You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting a belief into a claim of fact. That is dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at night. As we have noted before, you cannot usually do much about changing the fantasies that individuals need to believe them.

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Regaining a Capacity for the Rigors of Dispute

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We seem increasingly comfortable shunning forums that allow advocates time to develop their contrasting views.

There is frequent talk about a sharp American divide, with polarized and partisan groups shouting at each other across a wide chasm.  MSNBC analysts fret about the “MAGA crowd” in Congress.  Citing “progressives,” Fox News returns the favor. Anger on both sides spills out on Twitter and comments to countless blogs, news sites and mega-media like the Washington Post.  Even legacy news organizations of all sorts condense ideas to present facsimiles of what the other side has said on issues related to abortion, the behavior of our former President, or what our grade-school kids are permitted to read. Our cultural map looks like an endless chain of Tetons: a landscape of sharp peaks that leave little room to sit astride a place that would allow a view of all sides.

Part of our current dilemma is our withering sense of how to engage in a civil society. Various media platforms have made it easy to carve out connections with mostly like-minded others, leaving us underprepared for the work of making coherent arguments to those with different views.  In place of the agora—an ancient place where the public met and interacted as one body—we now see others mostly at a distance, via the narrow shooting galleries of media opinion makers with platform-specific ideologies. In the process, we’ve lost all or most of our abilities to sustain a discussion made of fleshed-out arguments and counter-arguments.

As noted in these pages several years ago, an argument can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple,  containing at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it can be laid out like this:

Claim: American Elections are Mostly ‘Clean’

(Evidence:  Because. . .)

    I. There are few documented cases of modern election fraud.
   II. Nearly all recounts confirm the original result.
  III. Election officials from both parties rarely find fraud.

That’s it. In its most basic form, an argument is an assertion supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  By itself, the asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. For these, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.  Repeating the same claim does not make it true.

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For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was stolen.” If someone stops there–using a formal term of argument—it lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. And we have a knack for mistaking variation of the same assertion as “evidence.” But controversial assertions alone have no logic to bind the open-minded.  That can only come when someone cites relevant evidence–logically tested by the insertion of the word “because”–using a source that is worthy of belief. When the assertion and the evidence flow together as a coherent argument, we are beginning to build a reasonable case.

It’s not enough to take aim on the true believers via the shooting gallery that fires out disparaging names. This short and convenient solution of using ad hominem language (i.e., “The fools who have made a career out of claiming election fraud are motivated by money and fame”) lacks force.  Ad hominem comments attack an advocate rather than their ideas. While we get pleasure out of calling our ideological opponents clowns, the rewards are self-serving, substituting personal invective for ideas that should be able to stand up in a democracy’s ‘the marketplace of ideas.’

Ironically, we generally shun the obvious format that allows for adequate public testing of ideas.  Simple debates where opponents speak, and then are given enough time for follow-up and offer refutations, can help those who want to understand what the preponderance of evidence supports. A true debate does not need a newsperson gumming up the works by turning the process into a joint interview. True debates only require two or three advocates, a moderator to keep things on track, and a clock that controls for equal time.  Using this format, the debaters soon learn that they will have to add substance to their claims: they know they will need “good reasons” more than more repeated opinions.

Schoolkids easily learn and enjoy this format. They like to document their views with evidence. In past years, programs of straight debates used to run on PBS (The Advocates and Firing Line, to name two).  But now we mostly choose to live in echo chambers that let us hear variations of our own views.

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