Recently, Reg Braithwaite wrote about the ad hominem fallacy. His article reminded me that debating – the art and science of constructing sound arguments in the face of opposition – is a valuable skill.
Though many online debates devolve into name calling and other foolishness, most are rich opportunities to learn – if learning is your goal. So make learning your goal.
Look at each debate you enter as a chance to discover something new. When you participate, assume the other participants are good people, who deserve an honest argument from you. If you learn the fundamentals of logic and clear thinking, it’s easy to stay in the debate, contribute, and increase your (and their) chances to learn.
Many people, however, overlook the opportunity to learn in order to pursue the opportunity to win. What a mistake. If the price of winning is ignorance, can you afford the purchase?
Therefore, when I debate, I make considerable efforts to be rational and reasonable. Even so, it’s hard not to say the wrong thing when a debate gets heated. To help keep me in the right frame of mind, I use a simple, idealized debating model.
I wrote about this model six years ago on Kuro5hin, but it’s worth revisiting. The model is not magic, and I doubt it’s novel, but it has helped me. Maybe it can help you, too.
Here it is:
- The motivation for debating is to arrive at a better understanding of reality (i.e., the truth).
- All participants share this motivation.
- All participants are intelligent, rational human beings, each fully capable of drawing logical conclusions from facts.
- The reason for disagreements is not because participants want to disagree but rather because their understandings of the facts differ.
- Therefore, the objective of debating is to share information until the participants can bring their understandings of the facts into alignment, which will allow for agreement or at least consensus.
I know that the model and reality part ways at the outset. When I debate, however, I pretend the model is reality. I do this is because it allows me to participate earnestly. Forcing myself to make meaningful contributions increases the chance that debates will end in somebody learning something useful.
Nevertheless, debates often go wrong. That’s the second reason I use the model. It gives me something to compare real debates with so that problems are easy to spot and classify. If a key participant in a debate makes personal attacks or refuses to accept demonstrated facts, for example, the problem is easy to see and classify: It is a debate killer. Time to move on.
Another tool that has helped me stay on track is D. Q. McInerny’s wonderful introduction to logic, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. This short book, inspired by Strunk and White’s classic, tiny text on writing, The Elements of Style, introduces the foundations of logic, explains how to construct sound arguments, and prepares you to recognize and avoid illogical thinking (fallacies). The book is a pleasure to read and makes a handy reference (I keep mine within arm’s reach). If you need a quick refresher on clear thinking, add this delightful book to your toolbox.
Don’t forget: Every debate is an opportunity to learn. So when debating, make learning your goal. And if you learn to debate, you will have an easier time debating and learning.
Debate to learn. Learn to debate.