Sunday, October 27, 2013

Einstein's Rules for Good Arguments - and How People with Bad Arguments Ignore Them

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
Albert Einstein in 1921 (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Pitt Griffin

"The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits" - Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein said two things, which taken together, define how to create and present a good argument.

First he outlined how to craft a theory, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" - echoing Occam's Razor.

Cut away everything that is extra to your point, leave in everything needed to make that point.

Second, he advised how to disseminate your argument, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Brilliant advice from a brilliant man. It is worth bearing in mind when someone tries to sell you their idea.

Politicians and their true believers frequently ignore the first advice and reduce their argument to slogans. Say: "The 2nd amendment is my gun permit"; "All taxation is theft"; "Obama is a Muslim"; and the like.

There is no evidence, no facts, no argument. It does nothing to convert the undecided. It is merely to make the base feel warm and fuzzy. That kind of shenanigan is as effective as it is obvious.

More devious are the arguments presented by "intellectuals", using obscure words like "procrustean", "empiricist" and "hermeneutical". Words calculated to obfuscate, not to explain. Words better suited to post-modern literary criticism than to an argument. To the uncritical these arguments seem compelling.

It works because many people lack intellectual confidence and fear exposure of their "ignorance". They think that because they do not understand the argument it is they that are deficient, not that the argument is hifalutin' crap and the emperor has no clothes.

Good theories are explained simply: "I think therefore I am"; E=MC2″; et al. The underlying arguments may be complex and to the amateur incomprehensible, not because the language in impenetrable, but because the ideas are profound.

Darwin explained Natural Selection thus, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change" - simple everyday language, with mostly one syllable words.

Sometimes, rather than using big words to obfuscate, people with bad arguments string together simple words in long run-on sentences. The reader gives up and takes the writer at his word rather than slog through thickets of language.

To further deflect attention from a second-rate argument the polemicist may resort to vitriol, hyperbole and the misstatement of the other person's position.

Extremists on the right, and to a lesser degree extremists on the left, are masters of the personal attack. Unflattering pictures are a favorite tool of assault - especially if the opponent is a woman.

Language is powerful - especially when it is hysterical. Obamacare provided funds for the elderly to explore their end of life options with a doctor. That meeting should have been called a "dying with dignity consultation"; instead it was smeared as a "Death Panel".

The gullible now view a plan that would have put people in charge of their own destinies as a government plot to assassinate the elderly.

One US Representative pleaded that Obamacare - a word that also started as a slur - had to be repealed,"before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens." Dear God.

Even "intellectuals" throw stones. One evolution denier, congratulates a fellow denier by writing, "By boldly and authoritatively exposing a deceitful fossil summary found in a text, he [the 2nd denier] implicitly tears the covers away from Darwinian propaganda that is cruelly deceiving the public".

"Deceitful", "propaganda", "cruelly deceiving" - good lord! Those rapacious evolutionists are out to ravish the women, and take hostage the children, of Intelligent Design.

Lastly, people with shaky arguments, attack the competing theory. Creationists try to poke holes in evolution. But disproving a competing theory does not prove yours. Proving that the Earth is not flat, does not prove that it is round. For that, you must produce evidence.

For some, facts are just a trick to strip away a cherished belief; they are not even necessary. The truth is what feels right; it is intuitive; it is "what makes sense". They even go so far as to insulate themselves against opposing opinions and listen only to those that believe as they do.

The huge advantage of this approach is that you do not have to change your position if new facts emerge. You cannot be attacked with the truth. You do not have to think. You do not have to defend your theories. And you can congratulate yourself on being a "real American".

The author, Pitt Griffin, is fascinated by why people make the choices they do, some as common as the food they buy, others as important as the religion (if any) they chose or the politicians they elect.
Arrayed against the individual are businesses, politicians and religious leaders eager to take his money, her vote or his fealty. The author explores their tactics and strategies.

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