Speak Up Against Irrationalists, But Speak Well

Published by timdean on

Some say that it is not wise to engage with those who fail to respect reason.

Some say it’s folly to attempt to correct the misinformation spouted by climate change deniers because engaging with them only gives them more exposure, it legitimises their voice and fuels the controversy.

Some say it’s imprudent to argue with persons of faith about the folly of believing in a supreme being responsible for creating a rational universe yet who hides behind a veil of unreason, demanding his followers shun reason in order to to demonstrate their love for him.

Some say pushing back against wildly spurious claims such that legislating to allow gay marriage will entail a slippery slope that will end up permitting polygamy and incest is pointless; just let those extremists continue to tout their positions and further alienate themselves from the reasonable views of the mainstream.

I disagree. We who do respect reason should push back. Vigorously. But we should do so well.

Yes, engaging with extremists and Irrationalists of all flavours does elevate their voice. And engaging with them is almost certainly not going to change their minds. But the Irrationalists often have a loud voice, and their voice is heard by those who are as yet undecided, or those who are too busy living their lives to read up on the details of each issue.

So it’s up to those of us who do respect reason and facts to speak loudly against unreason, not to convince those who have committed to a path of irrationality, but to demonstrate to those who are still open to reason that there are better ways to engage with complex issues, and to change the nature of the discourse to elevate reason to where it deserves to be: a prerequisite for any argument meant to persuade.

But we should argue well. Engaging in ad hominem attacks against those perceived to be irrational, ignorant or stupid does the cause of reason no favours. Remember, when voicing dissent against the Irrationalists, we’re not trying to convert the purveyors of unreason but those who hear their loud rantings.

And we need to maintain the standards of rational argument, first and foremost acknowledging the first rule of thumb of rational discourse: there must be something that can prove us wrong.

If anyone utters a belief or argument and there is no possibility of it being proven wrong, either by logic or evidence, then that belief doesn’t qualify to enter into rational discourse. Such an utterance is little more than an opinion, a subjective attitude, a conspiracy theory, pseudo-science or a expression of faith, none of which belong in rational discourse about serious issues.

But we can also wield this rule of thumb as a weapon against our irrational opponents. If we can encourage more people to acknowledge this rule of thumb of rational discourse, then we can brand those who fail to conform to it as Irrationalists – a new pejorative that ought to enter our discourse to counter the ‘elitist’ and ‘intellectual’ flung about by the Right – and as disqualifying them from rational debate.

This rule of thumb also means not tackling irrational arguments head on – which is surely an exercise in frustration, if not folly – but by undermining irrational arguments as a whole.

And if they accept this rule of thumb, then it’s game on; it’s time to engage in vigorous, rational and respectful debate – and let the best argument win.


JG · 11th June 2011 at 2:31 pm

I respect your argument, but I think you’re wrong. You’re assuming deniers and their like respect the same moral rules that you do. In this you’re wrong.

Over and over and over again, it’s demonstrated on denialist sites from Age of Autism to Watts Up With That? that the deniers are completely impervious to logical persuasion. The best strategy is, I’d maintain, to expose and ridicule the deniers for the idiots they are in the hope of persuading the undecided (i.e., still idiots, but at least possibly open to reason).

Respecting the viewpoints of Republican Congresscritters has so far not worked out too well.

Tim Dean · 11th June 2011 at 2:45 pm

Hi JG. Not sure if you understood my post, because I largely agree with your comment, except for the ad hominem bit of calling the Irrationalists stupid. That endears us to no-one.

But I agree the Irrationalists aren’t likely to be persuaded by rational argument – I said so in my post. But by engaging with them and promoting respectful rational discourse, we can brand them as Irrationalists and demonstrate to the undecided that their rantings are baseless.

We musn’t descend into fallacy or irrationality ourselves or ignore the Irrationalists. If we do so, we have already lost.

Tim Dean · 11th June 2011 at 2:54 pm

Let me put it another way: you’ll see greater success if you can show someone is an idiot without ever calling them one.

JG · 11th June 2011 at 3:09 pm

That endears us to no-one.

I disagree entirely. It “endears us” to all sorts of people whom I know personally who’ve been frightened of coming out of the closet as atheists.

The big sea change recent polls on the subject have shown has — and you’re quite right here — nothing to with the Faithful crossing the line. What they seem to have shown, though, is that approx twice as many US atheists as just a few years ago are now prepared to admit this. Is this change due to the accommodationist principle you seem to support, or due to the contrary argument being presented very forcefully in public?

And sometimes you claim a few. Today a long-time Republican couple who’re friends (despite that!) admitted they’re crossing the fence because it’s become obvious even to them that AGW is a reality. Would they have taken longer had my wife and I not been so outspoken?

JG · 11th June 2011 at 3:16 pm

Let me put it another way: you’ll see greater success if you can show someone is an idiot without ever calling them one.

Er, prove that.

PD · 13th June 2011 at 11:39 am

Thanks Tim – I came to your site through the article on the Drum . I think the article was spot on. Looking through your blog here – though I would very respectfully disagree with some of what you write – particularly around faith – I really appreciate that you would encourage it’s time to engage in vigorous, rational and respectful debate – and let the best argument win.

simbel · 18th June 2011 at 11:42 pm

Was reading Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World and there’s a quote he cites (by Ethan Allen) which, I think, you will find very enjoyable:

«Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.»

Roy Wallis · 29th December 2011 at 11:52 am

The entire post makes a lot of sense to me, but the point I had never considered before–and it is a good one–is that attempting rational discourse with some of the irrationalists is not for the purpose of convincing them, but to show the undecided there is a better way of thinking. (I am new to your blog, and subscribed after reading a few of your posts.)

Matt · 4th January 2012 at 2:41 am

Hello, I just happened upon this blog and was very impressed. I have struggled with this question for a long while now: how do rational thinkers convince those who deny our rational claims? The question is more difficult than would seem. The problem is not simply that rational thinkers aren’t expressing themselves well. This blog and many other examples abound of well articulated rational thought. No the problem is that for most people non-rational evidence is more convincing than rational evidence. Oh they may expound arguments, but at the end of the day what actually convinces them is something else entirely. Take for instance the large number (I don’t have statistics or anything but I think it’s common knowledge) of people who believe the common cold, sinusitis, and the flu are heavily influenced by cold weather. Explain a little germ theory to them… a few will be convinced, but I’m willing to wager that most will be unshaken no matter how well you make the case. To them their folk wisdom is a much more convincing reason than any premise you might employ. The thing is, just because rational arguments should logically be more convincing doesn’t mean the average human psyche actually finds them thus. This also occurs in various degrees: from the conspiracy theorist to many individuals who while otherwise rational believe that their personal experience of the divine makes evidence unnecessary. Few are the women and men who are willing to confront all their dogmas in search of the truth. Unfortunately, you are right that we cannot let the debates pass us by. Human welfare, the heart of all morality, stands to be gained or lost. But how do we convince irrational people once we realize the dictates of intellectual honestly? Our reasons, though strong by every measure of deduction and induction, are not effective on the voting electorate. Yet at the same time, stooping to indoctrination, advertising, or in any other way manufacturing consent seem out of the question. A conundrum I do not have an answer for.

Matt · 4th January 2012 at 2:45 am

I suppose that post makes no sense with out this: The undecideds you want to convince by open debate with those who are most irrational, are mostly themselves irrational just to a lesser degree. Therefor you may convince a few, but not enough to really make a difference.

Tim Dean · 4th January 2012 at 11:16 am

Hi Matt. Yours is an issue that deeply concerns me as well – and, in fact, guides my career choice.

I completely agree that reason alone isn’t enough – rhetoric and persuasion matter. Reason finds the answers, but reason doesn’t persuade by itself. As such, we need people who are both well versed in the employment of reason, but who are also skilled at argument and persuasion. Touching the emotions, clarifying perception, encouraging reflection rather than impulse and intuition.

I do believe most people are capable of reason, if properly trained and encultured towards it. But, as it stands, many people simply don’t have the tools to discriminate between reason and bunk.

Thus, the greatest battle is in reforming the education system. The two great agents of change in our world – democracy and the market – only work as well as their inputs, and those inputs are us. No child should leave school without the ability to reason effectively, understand argumentative and logical fallacies, understand the scientific method, and value critical thinking. These skills are just as essential as reading, writing and arithmetic.

The two great evils we face in making this happen are supernaturalist dogma (i.e. religion) on one side, and postmodernist relativism on the other. Sadly, the latter’s influence on education in the last two decades has opened the door to the former at the expense of reason and science. This must be reversed.

We can all do our bit, though. The more voices of reason there are, the more we can alter perception to make people aware there is another way of thinking. That’s why I suggest we speak up, but speak well.

And I suggest everyone read Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, as simbel mentions above.

Matt · 4th January 2012 at 1:57 pm

The barrier I see is that in order to amend the education system we need to convince a large portion of the voting electorate (in whatever nation state). In order to do this we need to employ rational argument and persuasion, but our form of persuasion seems less effective than say that of a reasonably well spoken but ultimately irrational speaker. The best chance to defeat these individuals is to educate the youth. This circle isn’t quite viscous and I’m certainly on board for trying your method. What I want to point out is just how daunting a task this really is, and that even our best effort may not be enough at this point. What I would like is more firepower is such a fight, but such a strategy eludes me.

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