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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 12/9/20

Friends, I think we all can agree that critical thinking skills are under siege. Many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a wild assertion and a critically reasoned argument. When one gives the same weight to an assertion as one gives to a thoughtful argument with evidence, one ends up where we are. And as bad as this is, it is exacerbated by an apparent failure to differentiate among the various sources of information out there (like the fact that vaccines work, as backed up by countless studies, vs. a “feeling” that they are either ineffective or anecdotally lead to autism). And then I realized the solution. All we need to do is send people to learn a little bit of Middle School debate and it’ll all be good. For those who don’t know, I’ve been coaching middle school debaters and teaching parents to be debate judges for the past 15 years, along with my partner in crime, Chris Keyser. Before you ask, yes, our wives think we need to “get a life…” In any event, of all the material we cover, there are three key lessons that we try to teach—lessons that apply to our current situation. Sorta think of this as “everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Middle School debate class…” 1. ASSERTION, REASONING, EVIDENCE An assertion is just an opinion. Anyone can make an assertion about anything. To give it meat, there must be reasoning associated with that opinion—why is it supported by logic? Finally, any assertion, regardless of its logic, requires evidence to back it up. We currently live in a world where assertions are being made by people who hold a title or who have a microphone and sit in a studio. Their reasoning often is nothing more than trying to connect dots—usually incorrectly. As for evidence, there rarely is much of that at all, other than the assertion of yet another person. Recently I read with interest a discussion on Facebook where people alleged there was plenty of evidence to “prove” massive voter fraud. The example given was that there were “many affidavits” claiming fraud. The mere existence of these claims was sufficient for their purposes to constitute “evidence.” Of course, one can always get a slew of people who will sign a piece of paper to say almost anything. Indeed, a recent study found that 6% of all Americans believe the Moon landing never happened. That’s 18 million people! Those who cite the large number of people who claim, without a shred of evidence, that the election was “fixed” are nonplussed that court after court has thrown out these assertions. Why did the court’s throw them out? Because they are mere statements and have no reasoning, nor evidence, to back them up. Here is what Judge Matthew W. Brann wrote in throwing out one case that would have disenfranchised nearly seven million people: “[one would have expected the plaintiff to come] “armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption.” Instead they provided only “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were “unsupported by evidence.” 2. YOU HAVE TO LISTEN Too often, a young debater is so anxious to speak—to state their opinion—that they don’t bother to listen to the other side. This is like most U.S. Senators, most of whose speeches in debate are not actually even communicated to the other side but are read into a near-empty chamber (or sometimes “read into the record” without actually giving the speech—but that’s another matter). The point is that in order to be heard—to truly be heard, one must learn to listen and be able to respond intelligently to the arguments being made by the other side. The space after one concludes a speech and when other people are talking is not simply the opportunity to take one’s breath until the opportunity to speak again. It is the opportunity to hear an opposing point of view and either respond to that point with logical refutation or perhaps modify one’s position. Without pausing to listen to others, there is no communication. We teach the kids to listen carefully and take notes. 3. NOT ALL SOURCES ARE THE SAME AND THEY SHOULD BE WEIGHED DIFFERENTLY We increasingly live in an environment where people are quick to cite a study or an opinion, with little regard for the source of that opinion. Some sources are experts in the field (although expertise these days seems to count for little). Some sources are people with political agendas. Some sources are retweeting other sources. What do we teach young debaters?

  • Not all sources of information are of equal import. An op-ed by a scientist appearing in The New York Times or a double-blind study by Stanford University carry just a little more weight than my Aunt Mildred’s opinion.

  • Anecdotes are illustrative but hardly dispositive. Just because it happened to someone you know or respect doesn’t mean it happens generally. The plural of anecdote, regardless of the credibility of the source, is not necessarily data.

  • Then there’s the fallacy of authority. We tend to view the pronouncements of public figures with greater deference than we should. Most politicians, regardless of their good faith, have political motivation. And just because someone is Chief Justice or President doesn’t make them an expert on everything. Their pronouncements are merely assertions of opinion, unless backed up by the aforementioned reasoning and evidence. Finally, people shouldn’t trust Gwyneth Paltrow for anything.

TODAY’S DEBATES ARE NOT DEBATES AT ALL—THEY ARE THEATRE AND A FIGHT TO THE DEATH When we coach students in debate, we remind them that in the sport of debate, one is not trying to persuade the other team—the only persuading that matters is directed to the judge. One would expect that the “undecided voters” are the “judges.” But with so few undecided voters, many of whom don’t pay attention to cable news and social media, the “debate” isn’t a debate at all. Rather, in our current political environment—on cable news, in Congress, and in social media—it is instead about “firing up the base”—those people who already are partisans. Debates in a public forum is generally between partisans. That means that, other than turning up the heat, not much progress is being made. By way of example, rarely has David Axelrod convinced Rick Santorum on CNN that he is right. And no one is about to convince Donna Brazille of anything… The only way meaningful discourse can occur is if people enter into conversations with the notion that they really want to learn the truth, that they are willing to be persuaded, and that they share certain values and objectives with their opponents. That’s how the give and take of legislation is supposed to work. But so long as there is “discussion” on cable news or across Facebook, with many other people listening to nail their adversaries and propping up the arguments of their favorite talking heads with supportive comments and “likes,” other factors take over. Truth is not based upon “likes” or public opinion polls. Truth is based upon debate and compromise. As for discussions even among friends, people won’t admit to being wrong in front of others, particularly if an audience is watching. Insecurities dictate that people retreat into their positions and become more adamant—not less. The space between a person’s post and their next should not simply be a pause before firing up the next argument. Rather, the pause should be the opportunity to consider divergent points of view. Today, conversations across social media and cable news is a blood sport that people want to “win,” and not a forum for the free exchange of ideas. It will be tough to get out of this cycle. WHAT THIS MEANS TO OUR DEMOCRACY Chris recounts a lecture he attended once. He doesn’t recall the speaker but the message is important. The gist of it is that “the central prerequisite of our democracy is not our shared belief in liberty or equality, but the acknowledgement on each of our parts of the possibility that we might be wrong.” Hear, hear. Have a good day, Glenn

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