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Ways of Thinking

February 21, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have recently been involved in a rather heated discussion with a friend over a controversial political issue. How many times do I start a blog entry with a statement like that! This time its the merits of a New Zealand politician, specifically ex-prime minister Helen Clarke and her possible involvement with the UN organisation, the UNRWA.

I often find myself getting nowhere with this person and I presumed it was just because of our different political affiliations: he is fairly well to the right and I tend to the left, but now I’m not sure if there isn’t more to it than that. I think its more about our different ways of thinking.

My new hypothesis is that it is more about educational background. I have noticed that the people I associate with who can present a reasonable and fair argument tend to have a background in science. Those who are most clueless tend to be from the area of business. Those from the arts or humanities tend to be a mixture: some are just off in pure fantasy land and others can debate quite sensibly.

This is not an absolute rule, of course. I know one person who has a science background who believes in young Earth creationism, for example, and there’s nothing much more silly than that! Also, this is just a preliminary idea or hypothesis. I have no real evidence to support it yet. Maybe I’ll do a bit of research and see if anyone has examined this idea before.

So what are these debating techniques which I disapprove of? Well, presenting an unsupported opinion and expecting other people to accept it as some sort of truth is one. Here’s an example from my most recent discussion: “The UN’s track record of recent years has been abysmal”. Well I’m sure some of the UN’s enemies would agree, but where is the supporting evidence? Do we have any surveys, commentary from experts, anything? No, just a statement of opinion. At least it could be prefixed with “in my opinion…” or something similar.

Here’s another one. If I quote a source of material supporting my view (something he almost never does) it will be rejected without even reading it. Here’s an example: “Wikipedia is a notoriously left-inclined reference source – you should be aware of its reputation.” Another unsupported opinion. I know there are some issues with Wikipedia’s neutrality but that applies to almost any source. Wikipedia entries which are seen as controversial are clearly marked that way (the one I used wasn’t) and the only actual study I know (yes, I have evidence supporting me) showed the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica are comparable.

What else? Another annoying habit is to make sweeping generalised statements based on single examples. Here’s an example: “If someone with such a flexible morality was ever well suited to such a job, this must be it”. He cites a trivial example which could be construed as being mildly dishonest and comes up with the statement that she has “flexible morality”.

Finally is the most annoying habit of all: cherry picking. Give me the option of choosing the information that suits me and ignoring the rest and I can prove anything. I have done this in the past proving the Earth is flat, for example. Deciding the answer you want and looking for supporting evidence is very common. Here’s an example: “UNRWA officials accused the Israeli army of killing up to forty people … it later came to light that the Israeli army had not attacked the school”. Yes, that is true, but that is a single example of an error. What about the positive statements about this organisation, including some from Israel? Choosing a single error and ignoring everything else is totally misleading.

One of the core principles of science is establishing the objective truth and one of the major techniques used to achieve that is the elimination of self deception. That’s why scientific experiments must be set up so that empirical, objective measurements are made, using double-blinding and other techniques. And that’s why scientific research is subject to severe criticism through peer review. I don’t see that same level of rigour in other areas, especially not in most business related disciplines.

So my friend is probably doomed to self deception and ignorance and there’s probably nothing that can be done to help him at his stage of life. Of course, he won’t care about that because he doesn’t have the underlying philosophy of seeking the objective truth instead of just propping up his existing personal biases.

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  1. February 21, 2009 at 2:24 am
  2. February 24, 2009 at 1:45 am

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