Why Modern Debate Sucks

The last few weeks have been a spiral of caffeine, research papers, and far too much statistics. In my spare time I have been reading (and regretting) the mass chaos that is twitter, the ultimate tool for many to commit career suicide by saying the wrong thing to the wrong people.

Seeing replies from people making claims, backed by "science" or "stats" is one of the most common ways of defeating a foe in an argument. No need to understand the numbers or studies, just a link and you can queue up your mic drop. The thought of this makes me sweat, as I know from experience that statistics can be used to try to validate or even "prove" (a sinful word in stats) a point. The saying "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." is one that reflects the sin of using statistics to prove a point, as numbers can always be bent and manipulated into an appealing form. You can even find these models being used by sources that are considered to be reputable, like the following graph

Bush Tax Cuts - A bad graph.

Now you may say "Well I will only quote reputable scientists". Well I have bad news for you too, even the best of the best are wrong sometimes, and even the popular opinion from experts is occasionally (and sometimes even more than occasionally) wrong. A good story to always tell is that of Dr. Barry Marshall, an Australian physician who had to go to the extent of testing on himself to convince the scientific community that stomach ulcers were also caused by bacteria as the sole cause of stomach ulcers at the time was believed to be spicy food and stress.

Now you're probably saying "Well that's unlikely to happen that often! Most scientists are diligent in their studies and employ the scientific method". And I'm about to break your heart by pointing out that not all scientists are ethical. I'm not saying your average scientist is crooked and is trying to mislead anyone, it's just the reality that scientists are still humans who have families who they have to feed, and a mortgage that needs to be paid off. And at the end of the day, if their research doesn't benefit the entity that is paying for it, they might not get the money to stay alive. For example Coca-Cola's funding of studies to shift blame for obesity from bad diets to lack of exercise. Which shows that even if you think that you are not inflicting bias on your study, there is still the possibility that the study itself is biased.

What is Wrong with Modern Debate?

If you take a moment and think about debates you've had with people that have sucked, I bet they fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Someone didn't know what they were talking about.
  2. Someone got too emotional.
  3. Someone made it personal or took it personally.
  4. Someone wasn't open to considering the opposing point of view.

So instead of dropping statistical bombs on other people to get them to shut their yappers (often leading them to resent you), consider some of the following points and have a real debate with someone. And please, unless you really know what you're presenting, don't use random stats to muzzle others (It makes us all a little sad).

Ask Yourself What Your Goal Is

Something that I always ask people is: What are you trying to do here? Many people don't have a good starting point for their argument, and simply try to derail a conversation to show dominance. If your answer isn't "I am trying to have a meaningful conversation, consider the other person's points with the intent to convince this person my point of view" you might be arguing the point for the wrong reason, and are going to either offend someone or get schooled by someone who cares a lot more about this than you do.

Be Open to Discussing All Ideas

One of the more interesting things I have found through my life is our willingness to avoid discussing distasteful, difficult, or even just embarrassing topics. For example, the idea that on average approximately 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lives yet it is unlikely anyone will bring this up during "drinks with the boys". Just because we don't talk about some things, doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, often when we lump things into the taboo corner they manifest silently as they don't receive necessary oversight and criticism.

Start by Trying to Prove the Opposite of Your Argument

When we look at the data after running a study to see if we have proved anything, we start by creating a null and alternative hypothesis. Now most people remember highschool science, and how part of the scientific method was developing a hypothesis. Well our hypothesis is now the alternative hypothesis, and we have to come up with the opposite of our hypothesis which would be our null hypothesis. We then have to show that we are certain that our results are not just due to error and are significant enough to be confident in saying that our expected outcome might be true.

Now that sounds like a bunch of word spaghetti, so here is an example. Let's say that I think that the sun causes cancer, and I run a study and I collect a bunch of data. Now I am going to say that my null hypothesis is...

Null Hypothesis: The sun does not cause cancer.

And my alternative hypothesis is...

Alternative Hypothesis: The sun does cause cancer.

Now we look at the data, if our data shows that the sun causes cancer with more confidence than our error (for example 5%), then we can say that we reject the null hypothesis, meaning we reject the idea that the sun does not cause cancer. Notice that I do not say "we confirm the sun causes cancer" or that "the sun causes cancer", because we are never 100% certain we are right.

This leads me back to my post, when we approach a debate we should check the validity of our point by asking the opposite of it. For example if I think that healthcare should be free for all, start by considering why it shouldn't be free for all and find all of the arguments against your own argument. Once you have all of the issues with your own point, see if your own point still stands up. If you find that it doesn't, congratulations you were wrong (see point 3 from "Be Open to Discussing All Ideas"). If your point stands, congrats! You now know many of the arguments that the other person will try to use to prove that you are wrong.

Why is this so important? Because in science, if we go looking for a certain result, we will likely find proof somewhere that we are right (because we like to be right). And we are unlikely to look at the possible arguments against our point if we are only concerned with being right.

What to Do Once You Are Debating

Now that you've found that your argument isn't total bogus, and you've decided that you want to go to bat with the other party, let's think about how you should approach the problem.

Don't Take Offence

It's hard not to be emotional or to take offence when debating. We often debate topics that have significant meaning to us or impact on our lives, and there are important situations to use and express emotion to others. Saying this, it is crucial to not allow emotions to be the backbone of a debate, as you will never truly convince someone using emotion based arguments (Guilting someone into submission is a short term solution which often leads to more problems later).

Some of the key points to remember during a debate are:

  1. If someone disagrees with you, it doesn't mean that they are attacking you or your character.
  2. Just because you consider a point of view, does not mean that you support it.
  3. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind after debating something.

A lot of people seem to associate their positions or points of view with who they are as a person. This leads a lot of people to take offence when you question what they say, often leading to a confrontational approach to debate (which isn't really debate, it is just an argument). It is crucial to separate yourself and your points of view, whether political, scientific, moral or economic, as you are not under attack, a point you are considering is.

This leads me into my second point: You can consider a point of view, but it doesn't mean you support it. This is important as listening is a crucial part of good discussion, and a good discussion is how we get our points across. If our goal is to convince someone of our point, we want them to feel comfortable in the discussion. It also provides you with a valuable view into the mind of the other person, which might allow you to formulate your problem in a better way.

Now at the end of the day, you should always accept the fact that you can be wrong. In fact it is a good sign if you are corrected occasionally as it is a sign of willingness to grow and proof that you are in a challenging environment that is pushing you to be the best person you can be. If you are insistent on always being right, you will simply live a life of lies (and to me that sounds like a bit of a hell).

Question Everything You Are Told

Just because someone said it, doesn't mean it is true. In fact, 73% of stats used in arguments are lies (I'm sorry I had to do it, it's like an addiction to dad jokes). A good thing to do when someone makes a claim is to ask them to prove it! It is a fast and efficient way of finding out if someone is pulling things out of thin air, or are repeating talking points said to them.

Notice that I say ask, don't use this as a way to derail someones argument, normally if you are having a good debate you should be willing to continue the discussion. But if you argue that a point is invalid because the person can't produce a source quickly, you aren't proving anything. Saying that, if the basis of someones argument is numbers, and they're all wrong, you may want to ask them to check them before you continue.

Remember That Everyone Doesn't Know How to Debate

At the end of the day the most frustrating thing is when you have a good point, you clearly state your point with supporting facts, you are ready for a response and you are met with one of the following:

  • Insults
  • Accusations
  • A Punch

And this means that the person you were trying to have a discussion with isn't interested in listening, because they probably fit one of the following conditions:

  1. They didn't know what they were talking about.
  2. They got too emotional.
  3. They made it personal or took it personally.
  4. They weren't open to considering the opposing point of view.
  5. Or if you got punched

  6. They're probably not an intellectual.

Which means that this was a hopeless battle, and they need to learn how to have a real debate. If they need some help just send them here to read this, and tell them to come back when they are able to debate properly.