Why—and how—to argue…

“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

G.K. Chesterton

I’ve purposely avoided talking about specific issues thus far, because I’ve been trying to lay out a principled approach to thoughtful discussions—as much for myself as for anyone who comes here to consider my random musings. Today, I will try to cite a specific topic/debate (and one on which I have very little expertise). Choosing a side in the debate is less important—at first—than acknowledging the need for a wide-ranging and OPEN discussion on ANY problem human beings are trying to collectively solve together.

Climate Wars—acceptance vs. denial

Perhaps no other topic can spark outrage as quickly as the debate over climate change.  Filled with righteous rage, the Social Justice Warrior is ready to pounce on anyone who voices the slightest bit of skepticism about the overwhelming consensus scientists now hold concerning the permanent damage our reliance on fossil fuels is doing to our planet.  Filled with contempt for the Chicken Littles of the environmental activist world, climate skeptics downplay the seriousness of the problem to a greater or lesser degree.  For this, they are often branded as “deniers,” regardless of the degree to which they remain skeptical of the overwhelming majority who accept the reality of climate change.

But I’ve chosen to discuss this topic not because I think I have the knowledge to argue effectively for either acceptance or denial of climate change, but because I understand how to frame a discussion—any discussion—so that one might come to a more enlightened understanding of it.

Start with the Binary

While binary thinking is rarely a good ending point, it is almost always a great starting point.  Whenever I look at a problem I am trying to understand, I try to find opinions about it along a continuum.  In this case, I might start with a simple equation like “denial vs. acceptance of climate change.”  I would then go to the experts—legitimate climate scientists—and read up on what they have to say about the issue.  Doing this is harder than one might think.  One needs to judge the credibility of the scientists, and the credibility of the science they are citing to back up their opinions.  On the topic of climate change, assessing credibility is particularly perilous, because the field is so politicized.  Most of the research accepting climate change’s grave and imminent threat, especially in the United States, is backed and lauded by members of the left.  Most of the research expressing skepticism of climate change—in particular, skepticism about the degree to which human beings are responsible—is backed and lauded by members of the right.  Like everything else in our polarized political landscape, the “truth” about climate change is filtered through one’s political lens.

Looking through, rather than at, the problem

But as I mentioned before, binary thinking is a starting place.  To really get a good look at any issue, one has to suspend both belief AND disbelief.  One must look at ALL sides of an issue, coolly and objectively, allowing all preconceived views and tribal loyalties to fall away.  This, too, is quite difficult.  The roots of our interpretive lenses are deeply embedded in the structures of our being—of who we are.  So, it might seem a fool’s errand to try to leave our subjective selves behind.  How could that even be possible?

That’s why we invented the scientific method

The scientific method uses experimentation and the objective gathering of data to come ever closer to what human beings can know to be the “objective” truth.   On many levels it has been wildly successful in helping us understand the universe in a richer way.  Karl Popper, perhaps our greatest philosopher of science, was careful to remind us that science depended more on what was falsifiable, rather than verifiable:

“A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability (or is falsifiable) if it is contradicted by a basic statement, which, in an eventual successful or failed falsification, must respectively correspond to a true or hypothetical observation. For example, the claim ‘all swans are white and have always been white’ is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: ‘In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia’, which in this case is a true observation. The concept is also known by the terms refutable and refutability.” (Wikipedia)

So here is what that all boils down to: never let consensus dissuade you from continuing the quest for more knowledge.  No matter how sure the science appears to be.  Does that mean we shouldn’t act on the overwhelming knowledge we appear to have?  Of course not.  But we shouldn’t be discouraging skeptics from continuing the work of poking holes in what we think we know.

Trust, but verify

I have a great deal of faith in most of the science I have seen concerning climate change.  I don’t think you will find many people who disagree about the fact that human beings and our often destructive behavior have done some serious damage to the planet.  But when I see respected climate scientists like Judith Curry being attacked merely because she is skeptical about the extent to which human beings have contributed to the current crisis, I get worried about the scientific enterprise altogether.  The quest for the truth—not consensus—must be our ONLY stance, a stance that has NOTHING TO DO WITH POLITICS.  We can accept the growing evidence that science seems to be providing while remaining skeptical that all the data is in.

Extending the approach, and collapsing all binaries

Popper’s philosophy of science can, and should, be extended back into the non-scientific realms as well.  If we can work in the days, months, and years ahead to sit down with one another, discuss our disagreements, having faith in the truth as we know it but remaining open to the fact that we may be—if even slightly—in error, we may start to make some of the progress the world so desperately needs.

Author: William P. Maniotis, Jr.

I am a high school English Department Chair, a college professor, and a doctoral student; more importantly, I am a husband, and I am a father to five amazing children.

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