Big title for a short reflection on assessing arguments. Triggered by a couple of recent short reads, each pointing toward a particular stance when hearing or reading an argument about a hot potato issue. Just a couple, as the start of a growing list. What strikes me most in these different ways of exploring the underbelly of an argument is that they all expose arguments as pragmatic tools of persuasion for a conclusion that seems beyond debate.
The first is a column in Dutch daily nrc about our comparatively super heavy delegation to the winter Olympics in Sotsji (king, queen, prime minister, minister of sport). The criticism on sending such a delegation when much of the rest of the world uses Sotsji for symbolic posturing regarding human rights quickly spiralled out of government spin doctoring control. The column targets the swiftly changing and/or added explanatory arguments of those politically most affected by the criticism. Lesson learned: when judging an argument, always look at the context within which it is given and the history of argued positioning of the person or organization making the particular argument. Don’t take the latest or final version for what it is but explore its development before coming to conclusions. Which is a good moment to insert this clever video about the way our media reality is photoshopically enhanced to the point of being an illusion:
Another is an article by Rosa Brooks about the arguments of the CIA against releasing a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report “on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices, seeking to make a definitive determination of whether CIA techniques were lawful and effective”. She does what I have lauded elsewhere: make an inventory of all arguments brought forward over time for a position (in this case don’t release because…), and show why none of them makes sense. The strength of this sort of questioning goes beyond its thoroughness. It makes one more explicitly aware of the objective of the argument: bolster a particular position, whatever it takes. Reading a riposte to one or two good arguments, arguments that may ultimately not hold their ground but require a reasoned answer, may leave you with the feeling that wisdom or truth is still up in the air. Reading a riposte to one or two bad arguments, should make you wary of Occam’s broom. Overviews like this, that include what seems (yes, I cover my ass by using rhetoric in the title, this in itself could also be a tool of deception, just one that I can admire more….) like a comprehensive listing of all arguments, reasonable, nonsense and lies, make it more legit to assume merchants of doubt at work. If a position never changes, but the arguments are all over the place and change over time, be careful. One who is very effective in using this knife is Paul Krugman: his examples of tax cuts being the neo-liberal solution for whatever problem is at hand make for great comedy. By way of a short break, enjoy some really great spin doctoring:
The last is an older piece by Dutch historian and public intellectual Maarten van Rossum on the Dutch poldermodel. By showing that explanations for the relative performance of the Dutch economy in terms of our assumed historically rooted consensual governance system are popular, irrespective if our exceptionalism is creating a negative (Dutch disease) or a positive outlier, he focuses attention on the dodgy underlying explanatory scheme. Asian values, praised for the success of the Asian Tigers and blamed for their 1997/1998 crisis is another example he mentions. Lesson learned: when the explanation remains the same whatever the outcome to be explained, be careful.
All three have a core in common: arguments can appear in a very different light when seen in the larger contexts of other arguments, made over time, by the same party, on the same or related subjects. So be wary of persuasive narrative. Don’t draw final conclusions. Continue the search for arguments until you have sufficient grip on the space, time and actor dimensions of the debate arena. Then you might be able to distance yourself enough from your immediate cognitive reaction to the rhetoric to think critically. Or not. But hey, at least you tried.
For some more good advice on how to come to conclusions, watch this: