Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Poorly argued nonsense

When you're out of your depth on a particular subject, it can be hard to determine who's right in a debate. Unfortunately, people who are right can sometimes argue badly, and people who are wrong can often argue well. The solution, inevitably, is to try to read between the lines and form a conclusion based upon what's argued convincingly, but even that's hard sometimes.

I've come to the conclusion that a writer is a "kook" (an Internet term meaning "an argumentative idiot) on the basis of the quality of the arguments on occasion, even if, fundamentally, they may be arguing for sometime I agree with. One issue I have is that many people don't even recognize when they're arguing that way.

There are a hundred websites out there to explain fundamentals, like the importance of avoiding ad-hominems (can you really trust someone who uses them?) or appeals to authority (if Richard Simmons wouldn't dare use such a ridiculous way of arguing, why should you?), but here's one worth repeating: don't argue one thing, and write something that unintentionally makes it clear the opposite is the consensus.

As an example, I read something recently that argued something along the lines of (subjects changed to protect the guilty): "The company's managers insist we need to make smaller widgets instead of the large ones I'm advocating, but the experts can't agree on exactly how small to make the widgets".

Pretty obvious here that the people who know more than the author, the "experts", are in agreement with the managers, isn't it?

Why do the experts think that? Not addressed. Perhaps the writer thinks that just claiming the experts disagree on something would invalidate their views, but in the real world experts generally do disagree on the minor details. The writer just spent 1,000 words (or whatever it was they wrote) on something that, ultimately, was worth throwing in the trash as not even worthy of reading - the writer's conclusion might have been right, but there was no way to tell whether it was or wasn't from the supporting argument.

For more on how to discard bad arguments, Bing* "logical fallacies"

* Or use Google, or Yahoo, or Altavista. Heh. ;-)

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