Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Rules

No, this isn't about catching a man, it's about reasoned discourse and debate. As I have said many times, we welcome dissent and challenges here. True, I did become dismissive of the belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, but I have to draw the line somewhere. We aren't going to debate the flat earth society here, either.

However, it is clear that there is enough disagreement in society right now about the reality of evolution that serious discussion is needed, and I'm all for it. I also am politically opinionated about health care and public health policy, and also international relations and just about everything else that bears upon public health, which is, well, everything. I want debate about whatever issues come up here and I'll be particularly happy if somebody manages to change my mind or prove me wrong about something. But there is a right way and a wrong way.

For example, one commenter said, basically, "I haven't read most of your post but I know it's just the usual evolutionist smoke and mirrors." Now, how embarassing is that? Characterizing something you haven't read is just proof that your mind is closed and you have nothing to contribute. As a matter of fact, the post wasn't even about evolution, it was about the basics of cell biology -- and I posted it in order to set up the reasons why it is hard to explain the origin of life.

Others just tell me to "read the Bible." This is wrong in two ways. First, you don't know what I have and have not read. As a matter of fact, I've read the Bible from cover to cover, in two different translations. I venture to say I'm considerably more familiar with it than most people who swear by it. It's also wrong because you have to say something to convince me that I ought to trust what the Bible says. And there's no reason why I should because it was written thousands of years ago by people who knew a whole lot less than we know now. Argument must depend on facts and logic, not mere appeal to empty authority.

So here are some disapproved techniques:

  • Name calling: This is very popular on talk radio and certain blogs. "Feminazi," "Commie," "al Qaeda candidate," "Elitist," etc. Just hurling an insult doesn't change any minds, although it may serve to maintain the solidarity of people who don't want to be called those names. I don't care what names you call me, and neither does anybody who thinks rationally. Ask yourself, when somebody calls somebody else a name: "Leaving out the insult, is there an argument there? What are its merits?"
  • Name calling in reverse: Labeling an idea with a virtue word, such as "Resolute," God-fearing," etc. George W. Bush calls himself a Christian and says he acts on instructions from God. Why should you believe him? Anybody can make such a claim -- for example, Osama bin Laden.
  • Bandwagon effect: A commenter pointed out that there are dozens of web sites extolling "Creation Science." So what? That's not an argument for anything. Half the people don't believe in evolution. So, half the people are wrong. Please move on.
  • Baseless extrapolation: If people start believing in evolution, society will lose its moral compass; if gay people get married, traditional marriage will be destroyed. If we have universal health care, we'll live in a socialist dungeon. You need to demonstrate the mechanism by which these unwanted effects will occur. You can't just assert them.
  • Premise shifting, changing the subject: The official definition of a troll, outside of Scandinavian folklore, is someone who tries to derail discussion by driving it down dead end paths. Usually the best way to deal with that is to ignore it entirely, or respond with equal irrelevance.

Logical fallacies, false premises and factual errors will no doubt occur. (I will no doubt make one at some point in my life.) Do your best to avoid them, i.e., to know what you're talking about and to reason carefully. However, we can deal with mistakes, and we should all promise to try to do it nicely. And, if you're uncertain of something, it's always perfectly alright to raise it as a question, or to propose it as a hypothesis.

So that's it. Bring it on.

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