Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Not To Make A Point

Here’s the article I originally tried to critique without falling over, blubbering, in an apoplexy of rage. In the process though, I quickly realized that I, as a fair exponent of Making-A-Point™ without a double barrelled shotgun to back me up, I, who have honed my craft in the minefield of intellectualism called BITS Pilani (snigger away then, I won’t mind) have plenty to say. So much that it wouldn’t be right, or possible, to write this whole post as a rebuttal to just one article.

This post is about the fine art of debating.

What follows is a not very definitive list of the ways in which you should not be debating - a collection of what a pompous few would call ‘fallacies’. Wait, that’s not quite right, because you still could, er.. (Here’s where the voice of my post drops to a hoarse whisper.)

If you, sir, are sufficiently cunning, or know your opponents like a psychic does his audience, these techniques, techniques which have been handpicked from the darkest of manuals and only alluded to as such, if ever, by debaters of old, will help you topple the most unassailable of arguments. I, as Keeper of Common Fallacies, merely lay down what I’ve seen, what you do with it is entirely up to you. To it then!

The Straw Man
Almost all spurious arguments are variations of the straw man. It’s best to illustrate with an example, an application by one of the finest practitioners of this fallacy: Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club.

Fan: Arsene, please spend some cash.
Arsene: Do you want me to spend 100 million pounds on average players and plunge us all into debt?
Fan: No, of course not.
Arsene: (QED.) See, that’s why I won’t spend any cash.

Right, it’s occurred to me that people who’re not into football won’t make any sense of that example, but here’s what it means. When you set up a straw man, you’re changing the argument in some way, to make it easier to counter because you don’t want to, for whatever reason, counter the original argument. Here’s what the fan should actually have said (that’s most likely what he implied in any case):

Fan: Arsene, please spend just the cash we’ve got from sales, and maybe not even all of it, and not on average players, but players that you think are good, not necessarily ‘top quality’, but players who will address the problems we currently have, problems you acknowledged several times in the past that we do.

Arsene Wenger is setting up not one, not two, but possibly three straw men with that one ingenious question, because the fan does not want him to a) spend 100 million pounds, b) buy average players and c) plunge the club into debt.

That’s why the straw man is a powerful tool, because deliberately misstating your opponent’s argument so that you can counter it, and mark it as ‘resolved’ is easy. It’s easy because most people leave things unsaid in their argument, assuming that their opponents will be honest enough to accept and understand their position.

Arundhati Roy sets up a classic straw man and argues it through most of her article, because the movement against corruption that has gripped the nation has nothing to do with one man. Yes, Anna Hazare is an iconic figurehead everyone rallies around, but by bashing his associations, his appearance, his intellect and his personality she’s not doing any of these things:

  1. Proving that the Jan Lokpal Bill is flawed.
  2. Proving that the anti-corruption movement is flawed and/or insignificant.

If your counter-argument is that she’s not trying to prove those things, what is she trying to prove then? That Anna Hazare is not a flawless person, or that some of the members of Team Anna aren’t? I suspect that’s the case, and if by proving one of those things she thinks she’s saying something substantial about the Bill itself, she’s stepping into the territory of Ad Hominem.

Ad Hominem
Ad Hominem is not always a fallacy, but it almost always is. If you find yourself doing something like this, you’re doing an Ad Hominem.

‘What would you know about religion? You’re a liberal.’

Liberals don't have to not know anything about religion, see. Ad Hominem sneaks into debates because of one side’s belief that the other side’s arguments are flawed because of personal bias. It’s hard to argue that any argument does not have some kind of bias driving it; however, as long as the arguments made are logical, and refutable, they should be evaluated purely on their own merits, and Ad Hominem becomes a fallacy.

By any yardstick, the various clauses of the Jan Lokpal Bill are refutable. You can pick up whichever points you don’t like and come up with arguments to show why they won’t work. How is Arundhati Roy – at least she’s articulate in her faulty arguments, the government of India ended up looking like a 12 year old schoolyard bully – refuting anything by casting aspersions on Anna’s character? To be fair though, she does critique some aspects of the Bill itself, when she talks about how it would only create another unmanageable bureaucracy - that's when she makes most sense - but such points are lost in the clamour about Anna Hazare.

On the other hand, there are occasions when Ad Hominem is not fallacious. Take this snippet for example:

A: ‘I don’t think that hurts.’
B: ‘How would you know? You've never even had a fracture!’

Even in this case, Ad Hominem could still turn out to be fallacious, if person A turns out to be someone who’s well qualified to make such a statement; someone who’s never had a fracture, but who is a sports physiotherapist, for example.

Oftentimes, Ad Hominem is brought out in Internet debates, shined to a sparkle, where opponents don’t know enough about each other to make any kind of statement based on the other’s personality/character, but still do, making any such a bad argument every day of the week. Conversations like this litter the Interwebs:

A:‘I think he is right in legalizing marijuana usage, because most studies show that it’s no more addictive or harmful than tobacco.’
B:‘What would you know, kid? You’re probably a twelve year living in your parents’ basement who thinks taking drugs is the coolest thing ever.’

Gems like this are what make trolling the Internet such an enjoyable experience. You could always call out such inanity calmly and clearly, instead of getting sucked into a flame war, but that does not guarantee that you will get anything out of it, because people can always choose to…

Cherry Pick!
I find that this is mostly a problem if you’re trying to have a debate over email, or Facebook comments, or Youtube comments (the horror!) or any medium at all that doesn’t let you do this:

‘Stop, stop. Wait. That’s not all that I said. Answer me this first.’

Right, when you publish a five thousand rebuttal, since you’re human and not a perfect automaton, you may expect that there’s at least one sentence in that thesis that is not absolutely logically sound. You may also expect that your cunning and devious opponents will ignore all of the 5,832 good points you make, and choose to lampoon the one bad point, because you cannot ask them to do this:

‘Stop, stop. Wait. That’s not all that I said. Answer me this first.’

All you can do is sit and fume, or wait till you meet your opponent in the flesh, so that you can punch him in the face. (Oh, wait that’s also a fallacious argument. You could try reasoning it out…)

A:‘There is strong empirical evidence underpinning all four known mechanisms of evolution – natural selection, genetic drift, biased mutation and gene flow. I think, with that knowledge you cannot deny that evolution is happening.’
B:‘Wait man, think? You think? You’re not sure then? If you’re not sure, how can common people be sure about this?’

There’s one exceptionally irritating form of cherry picking that deserves a special mention:
‘The sun rises in the east. What’re you shouting about, disprove that!’
‘It should be “The Sun rises in the East.”, fool.’

Why not that?
This is a hard one. It is again a form of a straw man, where you’re changing the argument to something more favourable to refutation, but this form is subtle because it applies the innate ‘betterness’ scales (This one’s better than that.) we all have to things that cannot be compared.

When AR asks you why Anna is fighting against corruption, instead of fighting ‘more pressing’ issues like farmer suicides and land acquisitions, you would be forgiven for wondering the same. But it’s a fallacious argument, again. It is, what I would call, an argument from laziness because it’s usually employed by people who don’t want to do anything to stop people who want to from doing something. I’m not saying AR is lazy, I’m sure she’s far from it, but that’s what I’ve seen.

A:‘Where are you going?’
B:‘I’m going for my weekly civic sense meet – we’re going to clean up the streets.’
A:‘Why don’t you first fix the corruption in your workplace man, before doing all that.’

There is always that other thing to do, and no one man, no matter how determined or powerful, can do all of them, and that’s where this argument comes from. It’s fallacious because by pointing to a different problem and asking why your opponent is not doing anything about that, you’re not rebutting his approach to solving the problem at hand. The fallacy is so obvious that I’m surprised sometimes that more people don’t call such bluffs.

Animal welfare activists are often rebuked this way:
A:‘But they’re just animals. Why don’t you do something about the terrible living conditions in Sub Saharan Africa instead, for human beings?’

To me, an analogy with the idea of vocation doesn’t seem too far off the mark. If you were to apply the ‘Why Not That?’ argument to the kinds of work people do, you’d be complaining about the fact that there are salesmen, sportsmen, film stars when everyone should be either a doctor or a social worker, because those are ‘better’ jobs in your eyes. (Catch the fallacy in my argument.)

Metaphors, analogies and thought experiments
Again, these are straw men, but I’ve been burnt so many times by these in my debates that I have to break out a new bullet point just for this lot. While analogies and thought experiments are useful tools for understanding, do not ever forget that they’re but imitations of the original, and so have limitations. If you get sucked into debating an analogy, instead of the original argument, you’ll surely get bitten by a point that would never have occurred in the original argument.

A:‘Politicians are like rabid dogs. They spread misinformation like disease, and must be put down. Would you hesitate to put down a rabid dog?’

But politicians are not rabid dogs, you see. (Right, I could have chosen a better example.)

I don’t disagree that there are many observations that still have a subjective quality to them, but not everything is subjective, you closet solipsist! You should not be doing this, even if your granddad is the President of the United States:

A:‘An exhaustive survey of half the Universe has concluded that smokers die younger than non smokers.’
B:‘What! Really? My granddad smoked twenty unfiltered cigars a day, and he lived to 120. Nonsense! It’s all a bloody conspiracy, I say.’

I hope, young readers, that you’ve learnt something today. My working memory is small, and my concentration span even smaller, so pray forgive me if I’ve missed out on any common fallacies you may have encountered in your short lives. I see so many of them, you see. Do add them to the comment sections so that I can replenish my ailing memory centres. Until next time, fare thee well, and use your knowledge wisely!

Don't Be A Cynic. Be A Sceptic.

I hope that it’s just my little bubble of social interaction that’s so skewed, because the thought that the whole world is agog over this article is just plain scary. It isn’t the thrust of the article that really bothers me, if I’m to be honest, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

So many people miss the forest for the trees that it sometimes pays to say out loud what should be obvious. Cynicism is not the same as intellectualism. Many smart people appear cynical to those who simply cannot fathom why they won’t let things be. Why can’t they roll with the status quo, why can’t they, just once, toe the official line? Not all smart people question their way into trouble, but all those who seek intellectual honesty do. That’s really what makes them smart, because what’s the point having a fat IQ on a piece of paper if you don’t ever seek better explanations for things that don’t make sense?

I cannot, in good faith, fault someone for asking questions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, so for some time I tried to find a way to qualify aspects of cynicism as good. Then I realized that I didn’t have to because there was already a word around, a word that captures everything ‘good’ about cynicism, but leaves about the dogma. Scepticism.

Being a sceptic is about asking questions, it’s about getting up off your cosy armchair and opening the nearest window to look down on the street, because the watercolour painting of the street you have at your desk doesn’t satisfy anymore. But being a sceptic is also about accepting that sometimes, the watercolour painting has got it spot on, and you don’t have to go to the window again for a while.

Being a cynic, on the other hand, if I may just stretch this metaphor a teeny little bit further, is about rejecting the painting as false without ever looking down on the real thing, and sketching one of your own and proclaiming it better, again without looking down on the real thing. Cynicism is not the same as intellectualism, because it’s easy to hold a view counter to consensus but just as rooted in blind belief.

It’s hard for me to say this, but sometimes, the majority view of things isn’t so wrong as one may think. You aren’t always stupid if you agree with a lot of other people. Having said that, everyone who’s trying to break through the wall of haze propaganda has set up all around us, everyone who’s trying to find out for themselves what’s true, is already a step ahead of those who’re happy to go along with the herd. But you can do so much better than this article. Don’t stop here, you’ll only lose that little step you’ve gained and fall back into petty, bitter cynicism.

It isn’t the thrust of the article which bothers me though: I’ve resisted, so far, the temptation to throw a bit of me into the simmering cauldron of gibberish that is what the Internet has to say on the Lokpal Bill. I have a feeling I’ll give in soon, but not yet. What bothers me about the article is how badly it goes about making the points it makes, agreeable or not.

I don’t want it to look like I’m running away after throwing a handful of unsubstantiated criticisms (Terrible article! Bye.) into the mix, but I’ve realized that there’s a lot more I want to say on the topic of debating, and how to avoid/cunningly use fallacious arguments that’s not just limited to this article, and this post is already fairly long, so until another post then.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back! Back! Back!

It’s been a while, good readers, and what can I say in my defence but that an old flame of mine decided to seduce me? And that relationships are hard work? Yeah, I didn’t even know I was a miniskirt guy till she went all miniskirty on me, did good old Work. And she’s one demanding mistress too. In fact, I’m writing this cowering in a dark corner of my toilet, nervously glancing at that little slat of light under the door ever so often to see if it’s getting blocked off by something. Like a miniskirted Work’s endless legs.

Right, now that I’ve scratched that particular itch for personalization (I don’t know, every time I go away for any amount of time, I seem to come back with a strong desire to make friends with Wall. Wall is so pretty you know? Skin so smooth, you could lose yourself in it. Mind so calm, you could…) Right, that’s enough of that, I reckon. Back to work.

At the risk of overdoing work puns, what better thing to talk about there be than work itself?

Some of my closest friends have tried, many times, to convince me that I possess great wisdom that far outstrips my age. I have, in all humility, tried to convince them in return that I’m normal, and it is they that have been blessed with way too much foolishness.

OK, that’s not quite right. What I have been called is a fretter because I fret and worry about things today that I shouldn’t be worrying about until age forty five. (Until I’m bald, obese and useless, and only then will I have to spend half my life running in one spot just so that I can squeeze an extra hundred days from the Bearded Man Above. Or so popular wisdom holds.) I fret, not openly (because I’m cool), but I do fret about what I eat, and how much I eat. I spend hours agonizing about the philosophical dichotomy between work and play, how it’s all an elaborate illusion, and why I have to believe in it anyway.

Long, long ago when I in my last semester of college, job in the bag, and staring at months and months of blissful decadence, I was not thinking about how best I would redeem my sorry existence by putting in long hours at work. I knew I loved programming far too much to slack off too much at work. The joy of solving a problem, and seeing my code generate a solution out of nothing, would hold far too much allure for me to ever let go just for an extra hour of Facebooking. What I did ponder over, then, was the question of how best to organize my ‘play’ time. I would have to do all these things in my ‘play’ time:

  1. Sleep a scientifically-shown-to-be-healthy eight hours every day.
  2. Write blog posts (like this) that will change the world. Often.
  3. Write short stories, get one published for a billion bucks, retire to that penthouse on Mars.
  4. Run through computer games like Binit’s granola bars.
  5. Read. Read newspapers, books, nutritional information snippets on Marie Gold biscuit packets.
  6. Keep up with friends, so that I won’t die alone, in the off chance that my impossibly brilliant B-plan doesn’t work out.
  7. Talk to girls, because the more (the people who find out about my true awesomeness) the merrier, and also because, you know, that’s why we’re here, innit?
  8. Research that phenomenon called social life that seems to have caught everyone’s fancy all of a sudden. Write a program to manage it for me.

I even thought about picking up a management degree on the side, just to manage all the things I'd have to do in my 'play' time. But I’m happy to report, sirs and ma’ams, that despite a wrong turn or two, I mostly stuck to the plan. I worked hard at not working, and even harder at playing. Until, Work stepped up and decided to play dirty. The rest is well, industry.

I’ve come up for air now, and the world outside smells mighty fine, so I intend to stay up. (By the way, anything interesting happen recently, folks? Must be same old, same old, right? Everyone’s corrupt, nobody’s doing anything, Barca want Cesc, Barca don’t take Cesc, India the top test team in the world, the USofA has a spotless debt rating, blah… Don’t bother, I was just checking.)