Sunday Evening Commentarium for 2013/05/26


I’m involved in a new writing project for this blog, and this post you’re reading now is an endeavor of mine to publish at least one original piece of material each week. I’ll be posting on things that annoy me, things that interest me, and things that make me go WTF??

This edition will be all those in one.

At the local game shop I went to this weekend, during a talk with friends, whose opinions on certain matters are quite divergent from mine, I was chided for giving an argument that undermined itself, allegedly for being qualified in probabilistic terms, rather than couched in certain ones.

Personally, I think that’s very strange, and even occult, that an argument about contingent matters of fact could be undermined by an admission that one could be wrong.

That sounds to me more like intellectual honesty…

What my friend sees as a weakness in argument, a lack of certitude, is being misapplied to the wrong type of argument. While he may have been thinking “deduction,” I was thinking “induction.” And inductive argument is not logically certain, either from the form or the content of an argument. Inductive argument is strong or weak instead of strictly valid or invalid.

After all, that’s what most scientific reasoning is like — concerning the more or less probable rather than the absolute and certain — at least in my experience concerning all the scientists I’ve read and have chatted with online. And I don’t think that that’s unique to just those I’ve come across.

Rhetorically, I suppose, confidence, or rather, its appearance, is an advantage. We are more often apt to lend more credence than we should to the statements of those who seem sure of themselves.

But what I know about skeptical thinking tells me that the appearance of confidence is far from a reliable indicator of competence, and may in fact show the opposite. Bluster does not equal brains.

Not just those I disagree with either, but anyone without a proven record of expertise in their field.

What undermines an argument for me is the use of language and buzzwords attempting to appeal to ideals, values, beliefs and moral judgments — emotive things — one may not share with the speaker, especially when there is no concern shown for the audience spoken to or about, the use of not just loaded language, but truly inflammatory loaded language as if to rally the troops and dismiss the enemy in one shot.

This is what I see on most political websites, especially on propaganda outlets of the far right and far left that see a lot of traffic, of which many such site owners seem inordinately proud, perhaps thinking that popularity equals accuracy, or seeking to convey that impression to their more uncritical readers.

Unfortunately for far too many people, otherwise sensible, this works. But only those already inclined to agree with the speakers or writer’s views to begin with. There’s that whole thing about confirmation bias, with a slant toward tribalism leading to political polarization and a shutdown of rational discussion through useless media shouting matches.

Add to that an ignorance of the basic concepts and principles of cogent argumentation, and you have the sad situation this country is in right now, where no one wants to talk or listen to each other. It’s a climate of toxicity, dangerous to a functioning democracy and a powerful  tool of political corruption.

Despots like it when their subjects can’t or won’t get together and talk with each other. The opposite often leads to revolutions, or fair elections, which simply will not do to oligarchs who wish to keep their ill-gotten power and gerrymandered votes.

So if there were one rhetorical fallacy that really stands out, one that I see the most of in online and real-time discussions of politics, or religious apologetics, hands down the most obvious would be be loaded language, seconded by false dilemmas, quote-mining and poisoning the well.

It’s a good idea not to assume without reason that your audience knows certain things, but don’t treat them like gullible idiots either — never cynically assume stupidity, and don’t talk down to them — underestimation is a weakness, as many a failed politician has learned when the voting process has not been improperly influenced in his favor.

The greatest sin in any argument is to ignore or insult the audience one writes or speaks to, and writing in a deliberately inflammatory manner may win one converts among those who already agree, but while useful in that regard, it just puts off everyone else, especially those outside of the rhetorical echo chamber who can see it — or hear it — for what it is.

Sunday Evening Commentarium is a regular installment posted at 6:00 PM Eastern Time each Sunday, on a question or matter bringing itself to my attention during the previous week.

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One thought on “Sunday Evening Commentarium for 2013/05/26”

  1. “Rhetorically, I suppose, confidence, or rather, its appearance, is an advantage. We are more often apt to lend more credence than we should to the statements of those who seem sure of themselves.” This is the way of the world. Not many seem to wish to question a fact that they do not understand completely, and as long as the delivery is sharp, and the deliverer of the idea is confident, they many times go undisputed. The approach of deduction by scientific method is, in my hope, the way of the future for solving the deputes of a growing world populous.

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