March 18, 2010

Sceptical Arguments

I was spectator recently to an argument Lauren had with a couple of people over the place of alternative medicines as an option and an industry. The argument meandered somewhat into the trustworthyness of science in general but Lauren generally kept the high ground throughout the disagreement and had more valid points to raise.

It was an interesting discussion to watch, because generally I find myself in the company of people who either generally agree with me on the validity of science-based medicine vs alternative options or who have differing opinions but don't fee so strongly that a conversation on the topic will turn into an argument. When faced with those of opposing views I have generally found it to be an experience of relaying information they previously hadn't been aware of.

What Lauren found, however, were people digging their heels in and defending the alt-med practice and industry. To be honest, I think they were just up for an argument, but the arguments presented were of a style I like to call, 'stuff I heard down the pub'. This is an interesting belief stance as it represents a memetic level of ignorance/knowledge, passed down through the wisdom of drinking buddies. A drinking buddy is a highly valued knowledge source and momumental perpetuater of bullshit.

So, the argument presented against Lauren (arguing that you shouldn't see an alternative practitioner) can be outlined as:

  • It worked for me
  • Global warming is fanciful
  • You're reading stuff by people trying to make money
  • What's the harm?
  • There are some things that can't be explained

This post isn't really about countering the argument, but a quick counterlist would look something like:

  • One anecdotal data point is poor evidence
  • Irrelevant to medicine
  • Hypocritical in the extreme
  • Time spent avoiding real medical care is time lost combating conditions
  • Explanations are irrelevant in this context; what's important is if evidence shows method xyz to work

What was most interesting, however, is that the people arguing for alt-med had absolutely no stake in it whatsoever. They had a personal bias in their existing opinion and for whatever reason they found the need to defend so aggressively that their arguments jumped all over the place in an attempt to gain the upper hand somehow. There is a base level, I think, of getting defensive if your point of view is challenged and this is a hurdle to overcome when trying to (... how to phrase it?) reveal certain facts about the world.

Furthermore, people don't take well to being 'educated' by people of 'lower standing' (e.g. people of a younger generation) or sometimes by equal peers. It can come across as somewhat condescending and people don't take well to that.

I think the lesson here is try to take a softly-softly approach when trying to change someone's mind; relaying information for others to digest, backing it up with evidence and weighting it with its importance. Richard Dawkins (despite the strange reputation he's got for being aggressive) is particularly good at this. If you watch (or read) his rebuttals, he spends a great deal of time going over the important points worthy of consideration.

When you're a sceptic or freethinking type (or whatever), you generally aren't supposed to have strong opinions about anything you haven't given a lot of thought to so you should (in theory) have a reservoir of evidence to tap into.

Having said that, I am appalling at verbal debate because I take a long time to ponder people's points so am just not quick enough to 'spar' with anyone. That's why I tend to make my points on paper.


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