“Just a Flesh Wound”: Moving Past Stupid Arguments

How many times have you seen a TV segment or newspaper discussion about some hotly-contested issue in which a person with experience, education, training, and professional background is presented next to a person with none of the above?

Usually there’s something about providing a “fair and balanced” look at the issues, an implicit tug of the forelock to the moral relativism of all things. That’s valuable when we’re talking about stuff like religion and morality. Less so when we’re talking about the climate, about health care, about so many other issues where facts come into play.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but an opinion is not the same as evidence. You shouldn’t be able to fight facts with opinion.

Yet we blunder on, letting people present these false equivalencies. We wearily accept this manufactured equality of value between people who’ve delved in the mines of research and have quarried scientific gold and those who merely sprayed gilt paint onto their beliefs. Both look good, but only one of them is useful. Only one holds up when you try to build something with it.

We need to start reminding ourselves, and getting comfortable saying, that people are equal in value but ideas are not. People have inalienable rights; ideas should have to fight to be considered and believed. If your idea can’t hack it, too bad.

My friend Ted Letcher, who’s an atmospheric scientist, came up with a great mental framework for this today. He’s graciously allowed me to reprint his comment here:

“As someone who studies climate and climate change for a living, I was dismayed (though not particularly surprised) to recently see the same old climate denier chestnuts paraded about the internet and news media as legitimate arguments, despite having been thoroughly debunked again and again. Then I got to thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and I have come to the conclusion that the Climate Change “debate” is very similar to the scene with the Black Knight.

Now if you are unfamiliar with this scene, first, let me extend my sincerest apologies that the trajectory of your life has thus far kept you from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, second; here is a link to the scene:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjEcj8KpuJw. (scroll down this page to watch)

Both in the climate change debate and scene with the black knight, we start with two sides that appear evenly matched. Overtime however, it becomes more and more apparent that one side has lost all real credibility, and is no longer in any position to be taken seriously.

Now as much as I like to imagine, lets say Rush Limbaugh as a freshly minted quadruple amputee, wobbling around on his torso threatening to bite my legs off (though really anyone who openly accuses myself, my friends, my colleagues, and my mentors of being money hungry frauds, with no real proof is good to imagine here), I believe it’s time, past time, to sheathe the metaphorical sword and move onward in the quest to understand and fix global warming. It’s time to leave the climate deniers (note how I say deniers, and not skeptics … there is a difference) behind for good, as they shout their fears and hatred into the unlistening void.”

Ted’s right. It’s time to “sheathe the metaphorical sword and move onward”. And it’s time to leave the people who present these false equivalencies—who insist on debating science based not on facts but on beliefs—behind in the dust.

We need to find ways to stop arguing with them, and just leave them behind. Unless the rules of the debate involve using actual facts, there’s not much point to trying. We need to learn to keep moving.

If we rebut all their points and they’re still claiming it’s just a flesh wound, we need to stop giving them airtime and mindshare. To say, as Andrew Shepherd does in The American President, “This is a time for serious people, and your fifteen minutes are up.”

People are equal in value, but ideas are not.

I’m going to work on recognizing when a person is shouting a “Black Knight argument” at me, where their rhetorical arms are lying on the ground, there’s no evidence, and they’re just yelling at me.

When I’m in those situations, I’m going to imagine the Black Knight down in the dirt, still saying “right… we’ll call it a draw” even after he’s lost four limbs and (obviously) the fight. I’m going to remember that his argument isn’t based on facts and doesn’t deserve further consideration…

… and I’m going to walk on by. Let’s keep moving.

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