September 06, 2005

Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating

Scientists are no strangers to arguments. In fact, they enjoy and revel in them. Go to any science meeting or seminar or read science journals and you will find scientists involved in spirited debates, and the arguments tend to be of high quality and sharply reasoned. But put scientists on public platforms and on talk shows and they often come off poorly and it is interesting to see why.

One reason is that the two kinds of arguments are not the same. Arguments among scientists tend to follow certain implicit rules of operation that, over time, scientists have found useful in increasing their understanding of whatever is being argued about. Scientific arguments typically begin when one scientist asserts something that does not sound right to another scientist. When challenged, it is understood by both sides that the source of the disagreement must be because of one or more of three reasons: the facts that have been used in the argument (either the facts used are wrong or not relevant or other relevant facts have not been considered); the premises on which the argument is based are not valid; or there is a flaw in the logic or line of reasoning that led to the disputed conclusion.

Scientific arguments center around these three issues and the parties to the argument explore each area until the reasons for the disagreement are found and agreed upon. Once that point is reached, one side may concede that they were mistaken or the two parties agree to disagree pending further investigation and leave it at that. But whatever the outcome, the exercise is usually very illuminating for both sides because in the process subtle issues have been brought to the surface and examined closely.

We can thus describe scientific arguments as a process of "narrowing down," paring down the disagreement to its barest essentials so that the core issues involved are starkly exposed and amenable to close examination.

But take a look at the kinds of "debates" that take place on talk shows or in the political arena. These are of a completely different kind for which the kinds of arguing skills that scientists are good at are either of no use or are positively disadvantageous.

Here is an example. Suppose someone (X) states on a TV talk show that one of the stated main rationales for the invasion of Iraq (that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the capacity to use them) was fraudulent because no such weapons were found and it was clear that there was no evidence even before the war that they ever had them, let alone the desire to use them. If someone else (Y) were to disagree with the speaker and the debate were to follow the rules of scientific arguments, then the discussion would focus on seeing whether the disagreement was due to the way that WMDs were being defined, examining the extent and nature of the evidence that had been used, and studying the reasoning by which the evidence was pieced together to arrive at the conclusion that Iraq was a dangerous threat.

You will rarely, if ever, see that kind of discussion take place in the popular media. In those forums, the preferred mode is the flank attack because the point of those debates is not to uncover the core issues but to "win", which is often measured by who comes off looking more confident and assured and on the attack. People who are thoughtful and take time to respond are seen as weak and losers.

So in a political debate, when X makes the assertion about WMDs, Y may respond by asking X whether he is saying that the people of Iraq would have been better off with Saddam Hussein still in power. The scientifically-arguing X then gets side-tracked and feels obliged to examine the assertion of whether Iraq is better off now, and also to defend against the implied charge that X is a big fan of the former Iraqi leader and wants nothing better than to see him returned to power.

Even then, X may try to restore the scientific argument structure, by trying to compare the living conditions before the invasion (political repression but civil structures functioning) with the conditions after (seeming anarchy) and seeing how one could weigh the relative situations, and how one tries to define 'better.' But this is hopeless because before he/she has gone far with it, Y will jump in and suggest that X, by not loudly and firmly stating that the US was right to attack and occupy Iraq is not supporting the US troops and is in fact giving aid and comfort to the Iraqi insurgents. Then X will begin to defend against this new charge only to find that time has run out.

Political debates are full of such non-sequiturs. Rather than "narrowing down", the strategy is to always keep moving and your opponent off-balance by bringing up unexpected flank attacks and putting the other person always on the defensive. Since it takes time to formulate a coherent response to an unexpected line of attack, person X comes across as ignorant or unprepared or not sure of the facts and thus "loses" the debate.

Furthermore, honest answers to complex problems tend to be conditional in nature (prefaced by phrases like "If this happens…." or "Under these conditions…."). But in the black/white, yes/no, we/they dichotomous world of political "debates", such nuanced responses tend to be portrayed as equivocal and evasive.

This may sound like an extreme caricature, but watch closely and you will see examples of this all the time in the media. Lawyers joke that "When the facts of the case are on your side, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both the facts and the law are against you, pound the table." The idea of this latter kind of "debate" is to deflect attention from the weaknesses of your own case by focusing attention elsewhere and not letting your opponent have time to develop a coherent argument.

This distinction is relevant when scientists argue with creationist/ID advocates because such debates are essentially political and not scientific ones. In future postings, I will discuss other differences and how one should deal them to become more effective debaters.


Over the weekend, I went to see the film The Constant Gardener. I can highly recommend it to those who like politically-based thrillers. It had some elements in common with the book Mountains Beyond Mountains that was selected by Case for this years common reading, in that the backdrop to the story is the appalling way health care, especially the treatment of drug-resistant TB, is provided in poor countries and exploited for profit by drug companies. The film is based on the book by John Le Carre, which made me predisposed to like it since I have always admired his writing and his political outspokenness. The film starts off a little slowly but after about ten minutes I found it gripping.

I also saw the film I Heart Huckabees on DVD and found it highly entertaining. It is not often that one gets a Hollywood comedy with big-name actors that deals with issues of existential philosophy, the interconnectedness of things, and the meaning of life!


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Mano, I've been reading such raves for "The Constant Gardener," but I'm also afraid that since it is apparently so reflective of what's really going on that it would be difficult to watch. Sort of like not being able to watch "The Year of Living Dangerously" anymore, but being very pleased that it was made. Was it hard? Cathie

Posted by catherine on September 6, 2005 11:34 AM

This weekend the film society showed the film The Boondock Saints. While this movie parades as an action flick, it is actually very deep and hits on some very important moral points concerning justice, religion, and law. I would highly recomnend it to you if you have not had the oppurtunity to see it.

Posted by Brooke on September 6, 2005 09:53 PM

The Lawyers Joke you quoted particularly interesting. Perhaps our political/civil discourse would be better without so many lawyers in politics.

Lately, however, I find myself disappointed with the journalists that host these shows. As a writer, I'm always on the lookout for when the flow of logic doesn't get you from point A to point B and for things like unparallel structures. I'm appalled by how broadcast journalists let their guest get away with replies that don't answer their questions.

But perhaps I'm sensitive to this because my husband seems to draw perverse pleasure from watching sunday morning news shows and yelling "you didn't answer the question" at the TV. :-)

Posted by Trish on September 6, 2005 10:34 PM

I agree with the idea that an easy way to win debates is by throwing a lot of arguments around and yelling a lot rather than trying to narrow the ideas down to finding the right answer. I've participated in debates in an academic setting for many many years, and despite having judges who are trained in logic and argumentation I still found that in many cases your best bet was to try to get lots of little arguments across in hopes that one would stick on the judges minds and swing them to your side.

Also, attempts to narrow down the debate to the core issues also can work against you, in that your opponent will claim that you "dropped" a number of arguments. Many might agree that there is a difference between winning the debate and winning the ballot.

Posted by Dashi on September 7, 2005 08:45 AM