Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Badass Quote of the Day

A commenter left this quote from CS Lewis that is the perfect retort to a whole range of arguments. It’s very common in political debate for people to dismiss another’s argument based on some vague accusation of why they’re saying X without ever bothering to show that X is false. The example that prompted it was the silly claim that criticism of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann (or anyone else, for that matter) is motivated by fear – “You liberals are obviously afraid of [fill in the blank] or you wouldn’t be criticizing them so much.”

But there are many other forms of this argument as well. The one that comes immediately to mind is the accusation of bias. In political debate, this usually is phrased as a rejection of some source based on ideology – “Well of course that conservative rag would say that, they’re biased” – without ever bothering to look at the source and critique its conclusions.

Everyone is biased. If one’s bias leads them to make fundamental errors in reasoning, then point out the errors in reasoning. If it leads them to ignore relevant data or distort the nature of the evidence, then point those things out specifically. If you can’t do either of those things then the accusation of bias doesn’t tell you anything about the validity of the claims being made. This is merely a cognitive shortcut to dismiss someone out of hand rather than engage the arguments being made.

So here’s the quote from CS Lewis that sums this up perfectly:

“You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong… Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself… If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic…”

Spot on. And very useful. The point is that you must first engage the argument on its own terms. Once you’ve defeated the argument, then it’s reasonable to point out that the inaccuracy of the claims may have been due to bias, or wishful thinking, or fear. But until you defeat the argument, you’re not really saying much of anything.