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The Grain of Truth Behind Calls to Restrict Debate

Statements about the oppressive nature of academic debate or the need to balance free speech with a consideration of people’s feelings are often seen as outrageous enough to be instantly and entirely dismissed. However, some subtler considerations deserve to be addressed.

The Unfair Aspects of Academic Debate

The fundamental difference between debate in pursuit of persuasion and debate in pursuit of truth has been recognized since Aristotle. However, while we know in theory that this difference exists, in practice, it is very hard to spot. We tend to assume we are right so—as far as we are concerned—persuading the other side is the same as revealing the truth. Generally, we believe that we practice dialectic in the pursuit of truth and our enemy practices eristic.

Some eristic strategies, such as the straw man and the ad hominem, have become mainstream and are invoked in almost every adversarial comment section on the internet. However, they are just two of a wide array of strategies. Schopenhauer identified thirty-seven strategies that can be employed in order to win a debate, regardless of the facts. Most of these are a lot harder to spot in real time than the ubiquitous straw man. Here, I’d like to focus on one: the Socratic method.

Wikipedia is a decent source if you want to find out the consensus about a specific term. According to Wikipedia, Socratic debate

is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It is a dialectical method, involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender’s point.

This definition suggests that the Socratic method is used in pursuit of truth—though the second sentence hints at the opposite. Schopenhauer saw the Socratic method a little differently: as asking innocuous questions, in order to get your opponent to make compromises, with the end goal of extracting your own thesis from them. He adds that this is more effective if you ask a lot of questions at a speedy pace, so less skilled debaters won’t be able to keep up and will miss some of your mistakes and faulty logic.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no dialogue recorded by Plato in which Socrates actually enriches or builds on his own views. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his methods were corrupt—he could have just been objectively right all the time—but it does raise some concerns. Yet more concerns arise if we look at some of the theses that Socrates was able to prove. The ones that struck me as the most ridiculous were that true love can only exist between two men and that life continues after death (which he proved by intimidating his opponents into admitting that it’s obvious that there is life before birth). Socrates’ Utopian republic was also startlingly totalitarian (for example, if you distinguished yourself in battle you had the right to have sex with whomever you wanted and that person wasn’t allowed to refuse you).

Socrates’ ideas should be taken in context. I don’t deny the value of the Socratic method. However, equating it with the pursuit of truth is misleading. A debate in the pursuit of truth is generally won by both parties who, each in turn, though not necessarily in equal measure, broaden their perspectives. If the purpose of the debate is persuasion, however, then it is rarely won by anybody. Honesty obliges us to admit to the existence of another end goal of debate: ego gratification or winning. When this is the main purpose of the debate, the person who is better at debating is significantly more likely to win, on any complex topic. Naturally, being better at debating is not just about having better command of eristic strategies (which are rarely employed consciously). It also entails very high levels of critical thinking, logical reasoning, processing speed, command of language and memory skills. Some debaters cannot fully translate their rationale into compelling speech.

I’d like to make a special note regarding debates in front of audiences. One major redeeming aspect of the adversarial (pursuit of persuasion/ego gratification) style of debate is that it exposes the audience to the complexity of the issue being debated. While this is undeniably a worthwhile aim, the presence of the audience will significantly alter the debate. The audience can be used in several eristic strategies—with the frequent result that the person with a better read of the audience, or of similar intelligence and level of knowledge to them, will win the debate.

Since success in debate is largely dependent on certain inherent skills, debates will undoubtedly favor those born with these talents (provided that both sides spend the same amount of time developing their innate skills). If the issue is complex enough, the difference in debating skills will play a bigger role than reality in determining the outcome of an adversarial debate. This is especially true today, when debating strictly on the basis of facts is almost impossible, due to the sheer size and complexity of scientific data. If the Socratic method were used exclusively as a way to settle differences and decide on policies, people lacking the inherent talents needed to develop good debating skills would routinely end up drawing the short straw.

I am not suggesting that the Socratic method is oppressive. It is not. However, it can sometimes be employed in a way that is very similar to bullying and, if we care about the truth, it shouldn’t matter who began the bullying.

The Complexity of Facts and the Hidden Potential for Unnecessary Harm

Facts may not care about your feelings, but feelings can reveal facts. The hurt and outrage felt by some when faced with certain facts is definitely real. While feelings don’t adhere to strict rules of logic, they are rarely arbitrary. In this case, such feelings might easily be dismissed by invoking the maxim truth hurts, but the problem is that statistical truths shouldn’t hurt particular individuals.

Statistical truths might be said to encourage stereotypes, but most people are willing to accept exceptions to stereotypes when faced with an individual. Additionally, if the data is correct, the stereotypes will emerge regardless. This can have non-negligible consequences and lead to discrimination, but that risk—even greatly exaggerated—still isn’t commensurate with the strength of the feelings we so often observe. That leads me to believe that it is not the truth that hurts, but a misunderstanding of the truth.

Look, for example, at the reactions of some women when presented with gender statistics. They often express how much it hurts them to be told that because they’re women they can’t do x. This seems like a frustratingly exaggerated and seemingly willful misinterpretation of the original statistical statement. How hard is it to understand that statistical facts don’t say anything about the individual?

Quite hard, as it turns out. Probability is a relatively new concept, even though games of chance have been around since ancient times. Probability theory originated in the seventeenth century, when Pascal and Fermat tried to figure out how to divide up the pot in a hypothetical unfinished game of dice. This is very recent scientific history—it happened around the same time as the first attempts to measure the speed of light. Statistics were developed soon afterwards and, in the early eighteenth century, Nikolaus Bernoulli introduced the concept of normal distribution (now known as the bell curve).

While the maths involved in basic probability theory is trivial, the concepts are not. It took a long time for scientists to come up with the theory of probability because it involves a fundamentally different, counterintuitive view of the world. People’s struggles with probability are not restricted to identity politics. It’s common to see people confuse x increases the risk of cancer with x causes cancer and to use anecdotal evidence to dismiss statistics. For an example of how conceptually problematic probability can be even for smart people—and even when it employs only basic maths—check out the Monty Hall problem.

When we use normal distributions (which are actually the easy, friendly ones in statistics), the maths gets a little more complicated and prior knowledge is often necessary. Probability distribution functions are just a way of presenting numbers and observations. They are not tangible or straightforward and the methodology used when combining different sources of data can have as big an impact on the final results as the data itself. With IQ for instance, the parameters chosen for the normal distribution function are the source of the actual numbers: the experimental data just determines the shape of the distribution. This simple fact makes it particularly challenging to correctly interpret information on this topic.

Jordan Peterson often mentions the fact that 15% of the population have an IQ below the level necessary to follow written instructions. What level of IQ is necessary to fully understand probability and statistics? Or how probability interacts with genetics and the nature vs. nurture debate? We tend to assume that there is an unwillingness to listen on these topics, but what if the problem is actually a genuine inability to understand?

If the facts are impossible for most of the audience to understand, are they actually more relevant than the message they receive? Does it matter that what is hurting people is not actually the truth? If you have no sympathy for adults without high IQs, what about children and teenagers, who haven’t completed the mental development necessary to grasp statistics? Is there any virtue in sharing a truth that’s impossible for so many to grasp? Is there no danger in how it is likely to be oversimplified? Feelings aside, what are the societal impacts of having this oversimplified version believed by our youth? These are not rhetorical questions.

Conclusion

I do not believe in stifling debate or in censorship and I do not condone the methods used by people who do. However, their criticisms often do contain some grains of truth. There is nothing in the pursuit of truth that naturally involves crushing or destroying your enemy and actual facts are less likely to be hurtful than misrepresentations. While there are obvious limitations to the extent to which we can take feelings into consideration during a debate, it can be done to some degree—without compromising either truth or logic.

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6 comments

  1. Hurt feelings are subjective, and therefore require an arbiter to determine if thresholds have been exceeded. Once you have an arbiter you have a some sort of social/political system to determine the arbiter and the rules used, and you no longer have free speech.

    The only way to ensure free-speech is to make the thresholds on its limitations very high. The US founders understood this very well, and were exceedingly careful to try and create an overall bias towards free speech. They understood that once that starts getting whittled away you are on a potential path to tyranny.

    The dangers of controlling free-speech with subjective, politically-driven rules are far far greater than any resultant hurt feelings.

  2. I agree that courtesy is a good thing and that debaters ought to be courteous in presenting logic and evidence. But this does not mean that there is “a grain of truth behind calls for restricting debate.” The issue is not whether politeness is desirable in exchanges of ideas, but whether power; wielded by governments, academic administrators, or morally convinced groups of people; should mandate their chosen versions of politeness to protect the feelings of individuals or those in selected categories.

    I would also argue that open debate does not necessarily produce truth from the free competition of ideas. SIr Thomas Browne once wrote that one may be in as just possession of the truth as of a castle, and yet still be forced to surrender. Winning an argument may have more to do with skill in disputation than with possession of the truth. But the use of power to restrict debate is even less likely to lead us to truth and letting emotional reactions guide thought is the worst possible approach to inquiry.

  3. Jordan Peterson often mentions the fact that 15% of the population have an IQ below the level necessary to follow written instructions. What level of IQ is necessary to fully understand probability and statistics? Or how probability interacts with genetics and the nature vs. nurture debate? We tend to assume that there is an unwillingness to listen on these topics, but what if the problem is actually a genuine inability to understand?

    I don’t think IQ is the real determinant here, I just think statistics aren’t taught much in school.

    Far more emphasis is given to calculus, which, if anything, is harder – but unless you work in STEM fields most people will never have a use for it.

    Statistics are useful come election time when we are assessing the truth claims of politicians, or deciding what medical treatment to accept, or investing for our future. I’ve never taken a life-altering decision based on calculus; I trust engineers to do those calculations for me.

  4. While I and most people consider feelings when arguing a point, this is a courtesy and should never be codified as a rule to restrict open debate in the public sphere. Sure, some people will make their case with no regard for the feelings of others. These people we call “assholes,” and I might prefer not to drink beer with them, but they should not be silenced. The fact that someone’s feeling are easily hurt, or someone can’t grasp the relation between statistics and individual behavior, is never a reason to limit others’ exploration of the topic. (I think Ioana and I are not far off on this, but I might be more reluctant to get on that slippery slope.)

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    1. Who knows… If the choice is between an asshole and a polite hypocrite, I would prefer to drink beer with an asshole. The drink will be healthier

  5. Listening to two pagans debating what’s truth is like listening to two people standing neck deep in a cesspool debating who smells worse.
    “Truth” must be objective and empirical making “truth” foreign in a secular world grounded in relativism.
    “Truth” IS the word of God found in the Bible, everything else is a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal.
    The BEST the secular world can do is find a grain of “truth” in its mountain of lies.

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