5X5 Episode 62

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5X5 Episode 62
How to Argue
19th March 2009

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5X5 61 5X5 63
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - How to Argue[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about how to structure a logical argument. Now, all people argue, or at least most people argue, quite a lot of the time but very few people ever think deeply about how to properly argue. Tonight we're going to cover just some of the very quick basics about that. There are two components to any argument: the premises—these are the facts that you base your argument on, and the logic—the logic that connects your premises to the conclusion that you're trying to draw.

E: Some things that are important properties of logical systems should include consistency, which means that nothing in your argument should contradict one another; soundness, which means that the system rules for proof will never allow false interference from a true premise; and completeness, which means that there are no true sentences in the system that cannot be proved in the system.

B: Also, it is very important that logical arguments are about factual claims and not value judgements. Value judgements are by definition subjective and are not amenable at all to logical arguments.

R: And I think one important thing to keep in mind is to understand what logical fallacies are and to look for them not just in your... say, if you're arguing against someone, not just to look for them in your opponent's argument in order to deconstruct that, but in order to get them out of your own argument, because it's very easy to fall into certain traps without realizing it. So, studying common logical fallacies can really help you tone up your own argument.

S: Absolutely; I think one key is that the purpose of an argument shouldn't be to win, it should be to figure out what is valid; what is true. And if two people disagree, then one or both people is making an unsound argument. An unsound argument means that it's not based both on true premises and valid logic—something is wrong with one or both arguments. And the first goal should be to decide what the common ground is; what are the things that you can both agree upon; what are the premises that are rock solid. Then proceed very carefully from there, examining each premise and all of the logic every step of the way to find out who's wrong here; who's making the incorrect assumption; who is making a hidden premise; who is committing a logical fallacy or both of you are. And don't neglect your own arguments. Don't assume that you're right and the other person is wrong. Stop, back up, proceed in that careful manner. If everyone really did that, you would get—It's like as if two people examining the same math problem came to a different answer, they wouldn't just start yelling at each other. They would say, "OK, let's go through step by step and see who made a mistake. Or maybe both of us made a mistake and we'll figure out what the right answer is." An argument is the same thing. It has a structure. One thing that's important to note is that if you start with premises that are true, and you make a valid logic, that is called a "sound argument". The conclusion of a sound argument must be true. By definition it has to be true, and therefore... again, if two people disagree, they both can't be making sound arguments, and that includes yourself.

J: You know, Steve, I think another thing to bring up is that you really do need to listen to the person that you're in the quote-unquote "argument" with, or discussion with. A large portion of the discussion is going to be reacting to the other person, and you're going to be formulating your thoughts and ideas and responses as that person is telling you what they believe. You're preparing your next statement as you go. You really do need to take into account what they're saying or else you're having a one-sided discussion. But the thing is, and I need to bring this up, Steve. So far, our discussion about this topic has not really, in my opinion, given anyone a really good sense on how to, like, begin; you know, how are they going to sit down and think, "all right, if I want to have this discussion, how do I formulate my premise? How do I get from point A to point B in the discussion?" You know, they're going to sit there and think, "what are the other people going to ask me? What points are they going to make?" Sometimes preparing yourself for the questions that you think you're going to get is good enough.

S: I think that's a good place to start. I also think it's very helpful to try to explain your position to somebody else. When you are forced to make someone else understand your position, then it really exposes maybe some of the holes or some of the gaps in your logic or in your thinking. So that's a good component of a constructive argument is that you're trying to do the best to make your position unambiguously understood; you're exposing all your premises; you're not hiding them. You're exposing all of your logic. You're explaining it to yourself and to the other person at the same time. And then you're giving them the opportunity to do the same thing. Again, I think a good place to start is what's the common ground. What are the things that we can agree upon? 'Cause that's a starting point and then you proceed from there. As Bob said, some discussions are about value judgements and if you expose that—"OK, well we're talking about something that's a subjective opinion here", then at least you can agree to disagree, and you're not going to waste your time arguing over something that can't be resolved with facts and logic.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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