Thursday, July 7, 2011

Of Facts and Arguments

I've posted about Chris Mooney's research on ideological blinders before.  Today's New York Times "The Stone" column by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, serves as useful reminder that facts alone do not create a successful argument.

Professor Gutting sums up current political debate quite well:  On side "put[s] forward a barrage of indisputable facts that show, with a very high probability, that [their] view is correct. But [the other side] construct[s] an equally impressive argument refuting [that] view."

Both sides have strong arguments for two reasons according to Gutting.  First,
Even a strong argument from purely factual premises is open to refutation unless we are assured that it has taken account of all relevant facts. Realistically, of course, we can never be sure that we have taken account of all relevant facts, especially with an issue as complex as a national budget.
Professor Gutting could have added education, Medicare, Social Security, nation building, war, and a host of other political dilemmas to the list. 

Second, Gutting points out that even if one succeeded in getting all of the relevant facts, one would "try to reinterpret the facts in light of fundamental convictions."

The whole article is worth reading, but Gutting makes two key statements worth remembering in any debate.  First,
Ignoring relevant facts can give us false confidence in the strength of our positions in political debates.
Second,
Each of us may conclude that the other is irrational or ignorant.  But we should beware of the sense of the inviolability of our own positions when what we really need is a serious effort to argue from all the relevant facts.
I will be bold enough to add two more suggestions to the Gutting's conclusions.  Know the ideological blinders of your sources and try to find out what facts they are ignoring.

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