Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

In a previous post in this series on Better Arguing, I argued that it was important to be charitable when arguing with others, and in particular, to take the arguments against one’s position seriously. But sometimes, people don’t even seem to acknowledge that there are any counterarguments in the first place, and that’s a problem all on its own. I see this all the time in my running of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance. People throw things like the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro’s Dilemma at theists and expect them to repent on the spot. Yes, those are interesting and important. No, they are not the death-knell to all theistic arguments. Jews, Christians and others have had thousands of years to come up with counterarguments, and any debater should know at least some of them.

So when people say things like:

“My problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all.” (In the comments section)

I get a little concerned. As my friend Doni, who wants it to be known that he is a theist, says, “smart people have done a lot of stupid things, and they all thought they had good reasons for doing them.” For the vast majority of arguments, smart people can and have disagreed, which means there are at least fairly good arguments on both sides. It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find or think of any compelling objection to your own position. The UNC Writing Center delightfully points out that,

“It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.” (Bolding mine)

When you ignore counterarguments, it makes your argument much weaker, since it’s assumed, especially if these counterarguments are common, that you don’t have any response to them. It also shows that you haven’t done your research, which also makes you a less compelling debater. Finally, since people likely do in fact disagree with you, it’s uncharitable and off-putting to presume in your discussion that their arguments are obviously wrong.

But let me be charitable and assume that the commenter (and all the people they stand for) has in fact done their research. It’s possible that they’ve really done the work to make sure there’s not a single compelling scrap in any of the arguments for god. If you find yourself in this position, the next step is to steelman. By Voltaire and Bayes’ Theorem, there is a nonzero probability that you are wrong. So what would the world look like if you were wrong? What evidence would you use to prove your new position? How would you argue for the other position, if you had to?

Now let’s say that you’ve done all that, and every argument you’ve considered has been found totally lacking. It’s still important that even if you don’t buy any of the arguments, you understand why your opponent does. How can you convince someone if you have no idea why they believe what they believe? And even more to the point, how can you convince someone if you make it clear you think they’re ridiculous or stupid for believing what is “obviously” wrong? (P.S. If this happens to you a lot, it might be worth reexamining what you mean by “obvious”). The most compelling arguments are empathetic. They involve seeking to understand why the people you’re arguing with find a position intuitive or believable or compelling and working within that belief system to arrive step by step at your own.

If I was arguing about why Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione, for instance, and I somehow, shockingly, couldn’t count on my audience to agree with me, I might write something like the following:

“I think it’s true that Ron shows a lot of care and love for Hermione that you don’t see him show elsewhere. He also matures immensely throughout the books, culminating in his support for the saving of the house elves, something obviously quite dear to Hermione’s heart. He’s a rock for her, in some sense, a familiar and much loved presence through so much turmoil in both their lives. There’s a lot of room to say that Ron develops as a character throughout the series and presumably beyond so that his relationship with Hermione becomes less childish and more mutually fulfilling, which is why they end up together. While all of that is admirable, though, Hermione, being brilliant, generous and all around awesome really deserves someone who is as badass as she is (the chess game and destroying the locket horcrux are great, even crucial, but they don’t hold a candle to Hermione’s list of accomplishments) and more importantly, who cares about school and learning and nerdiness as she does. Nerd girls deserve partners who can keep up with them, challenge them, and take joy in their intelligence, not demean it (she says without a shred of bias). So clearly Hermione should have ended up with a *spoiler* non-dead Cedric Diggory or something.”

And I would say that even if what I really wanted to say was

“Are you freaking serious Ron is so mopey and annoying to her for so much of the books even though she is pure awesome, basically fixes everything that goes wrong and is the predominant force allowing Ron and Harry to stay alive and relevant for seven years.”

There’s probably room for both, in different contexts, at different times. Certainly there are cases in which one must limit the number and degree of counterarguments one tackles. But it’s clear to me that when arguing, we should all be looking to develop the habit of assuming that people will disagree with us, acknowledging that they might just have some halfway decent reason for doing so, and addressing those objections thoughtfully. It makes us more credible, empathetic and well-informed, and hopefully more persuasive. To good arguing!

On a more serious note, Natalie Reed does what I’m talking about here excellently in her post Sophistry and Semantics about language and terminology around trans issues, especially in the second paragraph. There are several other good examples sprinkled throughout the links in this post.

Previous Posts about Better Arguing:

Basic but also hilarious resources on counterarguments:


Richard Dawkins Really Just Needs an Internal Editor

Richard Dawkins, writer, activist, biologist, is attracting attention for some recent comments that some say minimize the effect of the sexual abuse, rape or molestation of children. Was that the point he was really trying to make? If not, where did he go wrong?

It began with a tweet made from a recent debate:

Text: “Tonight,Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said 'she might feel was yucky.'”

Text: “Tonight,Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said ‘she might feel was yucky.’”

Since I like steelmanning (the opposite of strawmanning), I’d like to believe he’s trying to make a legitimate point. But it goes very wrong when he uses such fraught comparisons and categorical statements.

As has been pointed out, the line of argument is not new for Dawkins. In The God Delusion he says, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic [and therefore teaching him about hell] in the first place” (pg 356). The book also brings up the story of a Catholic women who told him that while “being fondled by [a] priest simply left the impression…as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear” (pg 357). It’s important to note that Dawkins is comparing the long term psychological effects, not the events themselves.

https://i0.wp.com/www.islamreligion.com/articles/images/A_Description_of_Hellfire_(part_4_of_5)_001.jpgSo is Richard Dawkins minimizing child abuse? Yes and no. While his statements do minimize the awfulness of child sexual abuse, it seems clear from context that that is not his intention. In fact, to minimize child sexual abuse would diminish the power of his point. Dawkins is trying, both in his book and in the debate in question, to emphasize the power and harmful effects of teaching young children about a torturous pit of fire which awaits them if they behave poorly. This point seems compelling enough on its own, but it is true that teaching children about hell is considered almost entirely noncontroversial. To combat what he sees as a complacent public, he chooses to compare the teaching of hell to something universally accepted as awful: the sexual abuse of children. Note that he says, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was.” If sexual abuse were not so devastating, then Richard Dawkins could not make this point. He needs it to be bad and for people to accept it as such.

Even so, he is still most assuredly running a risk of being highly misinterpreted. A comparison between two bad things always has the potential of minimizing one, overstating the other or both. Possibly aware of this, in the book, Dawkins is somewhat careful to qualify and constrain his point. He says that the damage of childhood sexual abuse is arguably less damaging than the teaching of hell, and later says that he is only trying to show that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass the physical.”

https://i0.wp.com/blog.vovici.com/Portals/60483/images//Rating%20Scale%20Comparison%20-%20Weighing%20Different%20Scales%20for%20Survey%20Research.jpgRegardless, the entire way this point is made is a bad idea. People understandably get upset by what they perceive to be anything minimizing child abuse.  Since the comparison isn’t necessary to his point, it’s not worth the risk of being misunderstood that way. That said, Dawkins is not strictly wrong. He is right in that psychological abuse can be worse than physical. He is probably right that in some, perhaps even many, cases, (including the woman in the book and himself) victims of childhood abuse who were taught about hell personally characterize the latter as worse that the former. Up until this point, the whole argument is merely potentially interesting speculation that on balance distracts and detracts from his broader discussion of the harms of religion.

https://i2.wp.com/lh5.ggpht.com/-sDc2G1OAM9s/Tpg5dYdvKFI/AAAAAAAAY_M/dtEBSoveqFU/nuance%25255B5%25255D.jpgBut then, Dawkins abandoned the nuance. If the tweet is accurate, Dawkins argued that “teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said ‘she might feel was yucky’.”  For the purposes of scoring debate points, he changed “potentially worse” or “in some cases worse” to “always worse.” That’s unacceptable. Richard Dawkins’ (who was himself abused as a child) past experiences and knowledge of people’s stories gives him an understanding of some of the ways that abuse can manifest and affect people’s lives. It does not give him the right to make general claims about the experiences of others, even in off-the-cuff remarks. He has no basis other than guesses and anecdotes for saying that it is in general worse to be taught about hell than to be sexually abused. In fact, what evidence there is is against him. His potentially interesting speculation became an overgeneralized, unfounded claim about things which are difficult and traumatic experiences for others. In this, he is guilty of appearing more certain than he is to win rhetorical points, which caused pain for others.

Further, he used a single, real example (the feeling of yuckiness described by the woman he quotes in his book), and implied that it might be a general sentiment. While in principle it might be true, and some victims of sexual abuse do in fact feel that their experiences were not as awful as is commonly expected, to claim without evidence that that might at all be universal is minimizing the effects of child sexual abuse. He is implying, especially with the use of the childish word ‘yucky’ (even though it came from the anecdote) that sexual abuse might not in general be quite so bad. Elsewhere I believe he is not guilty of this claim, but in this specific case, he is.

So is Dawkins guilty of minimizing child abuse? Yes, but he is far more guilty of being merely thoughtless about his initial statement in his book and careless with the evidence and feelings of others in the real-time context of a debate. I think that that nuance is important, since thoughtlessness and error are different than malice or cruelty. I do not think that Richard Dawkins does not consider child abuse bad, nor do I think he intends to hurt those who have experienced it. To claim otherwise is an uncharitable overreading of the evidence available.

Some other ideas I’m bouncing around that didn’t make their way into the main body of the post:

  • I think that careless statements about child abuse, as hurtful as they are, are potentially less damaging on a societal level then, say, careless statements about rape, since while there is shame and fear that surrounds childhood sexual abuse, there is no analogous “Child Sexual Abuse Culture” to the best of my knowledge. Thoughts? Full credit for this idea goes to Paul Fisher
  • It seems likely to me that while these statements were absolutely problematic, they were read in a particularly uncharitable light because of Dawkins’ record of sneering and dismissive statements on somewhat related issues. I don’t think the Bayesian evidence of a Dawkins statement being more likely than not to be a bad one is strong enough to override the lack of evidence of true abuse apologetics in this case. Paul probably deserves credit for most of this idea too.