The comedy troupe Monty Python long ago did a sketch called “The Argument Clinic.” Michael Palin paid for an argument with John Cleese, a session that quickly devolved into a “yes, it is” and “no, it isn’t” rapid-fire exchange. Good argument is a lot more than did/did not negation battles you had as a kid.
I suspect many of us either have lost the ability to argue well, or never developed that vital set of skills. Good argument can enlighten, even leading to good decisions and defensible decision-making. Good argument draws from research and logic to state, challenge and defend propositions. If done well, one also learns skills in critical thinking.
Too often we approach argument as a means to an end like “own the libs” or “embarrass the right wingers.” We emulate the talk radio world where there are but two sides (political left or right) and any affront to your side must be met with a counter example of bad behavior by the other side. This “what-about-ism” is a depressing dead end.
Not all supporting information is created equal. A claim with no supporting information is an assertion. Slightly better than assertions are examples. The example, however, may not be a representative one. Expert opinions also are better than nothing, but not nearly as powerful as one might think. Experts can and do make whopper mistakes. The book “The Experts Speak” provides us with these:
• Irving Thalberg warned fellow movie mogul Louis B. Mayer about bidding for the movie rights to Gone With the Wind, “Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel.”
• The president of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olson, in 1977 advised, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”
• “The chances of Germany making a quick job of overwhelming Poland are not good,” said Maj. George Fielding Eliot, on May 13, 1939. On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Soviet forces came in from the east on Sept. 17, and the two forces had divided Poland by Oct. 6.
Descriptive data begin to get us into more powerful arguments. For example, based on required disclosures, average chief executive officer compensation is 287 times greater than typical worker pay (among Standard and Poor’s Financials’ Top 500 corporations). This gap steadily has been growing over time, and the U.S. gap is significantly more than the gap for Japanese- and European-based corporations. These data should prompt discussions about greed, wages and corporate power.
Here’s another conversation starter drawn from descriptive data. One recent tally of convictions from the past 50 years show a strong pattern regarding presidential administrations and felony convictions of that president’s appointed officials, business associates and campaign officials. The bottom of the list is filled with Democrats: Barack Obama, 0; Jimmy Carter, 0; Bill Clinton, 2. One also can see that Gerald Ford and George Bush the elder had just one apiece, though the latter’s total may have been stunted by a raft of last-minute colleague pardons. George W. Bush had nine. Ronald Reagan had 16; Richard Nixon a whopping 55. Donald Trump’s current total as of mid-September, six Americans and seven foreign nationals, is likely to swell.
Properly done studies (ones that control for other potential variables and survive anonymous, academic peer review) are even better than descriptive data. The only thing more persuasive or powerful are collections of multiple well-done studies — things like the Surgeon General’s reports on smoking; or the recent, instructive and underreported Rand Corporation study on gun safety laws; or the five reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, collating and validating the growing mountain of scientific evidence that climate change is real and heavily caused by human action.
Good idea clashes fall apart when people, often in desperation, default into logical fallacies. The most common is name calling, aka ad hominem or personal attack. “Go away, libtard,” is a rude blurt, not an argument. Appeals to fear, might, pity and revered authority also are logical fallacies, as is the “everyone does it” bandwagon appeal. The term “slippery slope” likely should be reserved for wet hillsides; it can be a fallacy because it denies human agency in making decisions.
The mere correlation of two things does not mean one caused the other. Let’s say chewing gum is more prevalent in juvenile delinquents than in other children. That doesn’t mean chewing gum causes juvenile delinquency.
Good argument is not the exclusive property of any philosophy or party. It belongs to all of us. Used properly, it can help us through bad times, tough choices and mean divisions. It’s time all of us, especially gatekeepers in media, insisted on more of it.