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What is "healthy discourse?" [Aug. 28th, 2009|03:33 pm]
[Current Mood |awake]

I shouldn't have to explain this, but apparently some people don't get it.   So I will.    Healthy discourse is fact-based, logical discussion of an issue without use of any abusive language and without dependence on informal or formal fallacies.   Discourse that relies on anything but facts and logic, that includes verbal abuse, is not healthy discourse.  (Note: a lot of conversation is not discourse and doesn't need to be--and thus is not bound by the rules of discourse, though avoiding abuse is still important.  "Please pass the salt" and "I love you" are not part of discourse but are preferable to "Gimme salt" and "Don't bother me.")
 Example 1.

Joe says "I think we need to widen Oak Street.  There've been two head-on accidents there in the last six months."  

Bill says, "I disagree.   Oak Street would be plenty wide if they'd ban curbside parking--it's plenty wide when there aren't cars parked along both sides."

Example 2.

Joe says,  "I think we need to widen Oak Street.  There've been two head-on accidents there in the last six months."

Bill says, "That's ridiculous.  It'll cost money--my taxes are high enough already.  Whatever happened to personal responsibility in this country?  Drivers should be more careful. It's their fault if they run into each other."

Can you identify which is "healthy discourse?"   

Healthy discourse is based on facts--verifiable facts.   Issues are discussed with those facts in mind--not opinions alone.   The logic connecting those facts is sound.   Facts contrary to the position of one person must still be dealt with--logically, calmly--if they can be shown to be facts and not factoids. 

What count as facts:  1) personal experience honestly related is a fact, though it is only one example.  That it's anecdotal does not rule it out as a fact, but limits its force.  2)  compilations of facts in reasonably sound source material (primary sources preferred, secondary sources of good repute.) 
            1)   Jane is bitten by a loose dog.  Jane reports in an online forum where there's a discussion of whether dogs should ever be allowed to run loose,  "I was bitten by a loose dog" and accurately describes her injuries and the cost of treatment.  That's personal experience, and unless Jane lies, should be taken as a data point.
           2)   A city records the number of dog bites from loose dogs that were reported to the police.  Roger cites this report: "X city reports that 37 dog bites from loose dogs were reported to police in one year--that's Y% of the total dog bites reported."  
           1)  Andy counters that his dog, which has been loose regularly for the past four years, has never bitten anyone, and no dog that he knows, owned by any friends or family, has ever bitten anyone.  Personal experience, a small-multiple data point since Andy admits that amounts to five dogs.
           2)  Laura cites a national report on dog bites and the medical costs incurred by the victims.  Large data set, but does not break out "loose" dogs.
           1)  Bill, who is an animal control officer in a small town, comments that dog owners whose dogs have bitten someone always insist the dog is not a biter and is really friendly.  When asked, he says he's been called to "somewhere over fifty" dog bite incidents in his career of over ten years.   He argues that no one can predict for sure that their dog won't bite--one of the dogs he was called to evaluate bit him right after the owner said it was sweet and never bit without provocation, and he hadn't touched it yet. 

All these are, at one or another level, facts to be dealt with.  Those who want to let their dogs run loose will, in healthy discourse, respect the experience of those who have been bitten; those who think dogs should never run loose will, in healthy discourse, respect the experience of dog owners whose dogs have not caused a problem.  (BTW, whether dogs should be allowed off-leash in a particular public park in a nearby city is a current hot issue there.)  Each side will listen to the other, and include in their response the facts the other has put forth, even if they do not agree.  And so far, the statements reported above conform to the standards of reasonable and healthy discourse. 
What does not count as facts:  1) opinions,  2) theories,  3) hypotheses, 4) traditions,

On the same discussion board:
                1) Jim says dogs only bite if someone hurts them.  Jim offers no citation of verifiable fact, no source for his opinion.
               2)  Olive says loose dogs bite because they're finally free of constraint and are afraid to be caught.  When questions, she says "Well, it's a theory."
               3)   Dora says maybe loose dogs would be less likely to bite if people in the park didn't have food with them.   Dora can offer no evidence that people carrying food are more likely to be bitten than those who don't.
               4) Alex says  there's never been a leash ordinance where he lives and therefore no  one should impose one now.   He's against all new rules.
                4) Paula says there's been a leash law in her town since 1934 and every other town should have one too, because that's how it's always been done.
               1) Paul says it's cruel to dogs to keep them penned up.   He can offer no facts in support of his opinion, but says "Dogs were meant to run free."
               1) Allie says it's cruel to dogs to let them run loose.  She can offer no facts in support of her opinion.

None of these are facts, and the discourse at this point has leapt off the rails of "healthy" and into speculation and mere opinion.   The next step is verbal abuse (heaped on to cover up the lack of facts and/or the logical fallacies.) 

We hear and see so much bad logic that--if you haven't  had a course in it--it's easy to be fooled.  "Vote for X--a true family man who cares about you..."   Even if true, does being "a true family man" mean that X is knowledgeable about (for instance) global trade issues, which X (as a US Congressman or Senator) might need to know?   Well...no.   But we continue to see politicians posing with their dressed up spouses and pretty children instead of with a book or other indication that they have a brain and something useful in it.   Advertising and campaign literature (not to mention letters to the editor in most newspapers) are hotbeds of logical fallacy.  Appeals to authority ("well, the Bible/president/mayor, surgeon-general says..."), the temporal fallacy (something is good or bad because it's old or new),  ad hominem appeals (something it true or false because of who said it)...a whole raft of informal fallacies run over us every day, not to mention the formal ones (the undistributed middle, for instance...)  

From this lack of logical training or logical environment, we get ridiculous exaggerations and complete misstatements.   "How can you be a Christian and not support X?"   "How can you claim to love babies and support reproductive freedom?"   "How can you be a loyal American and vote for Y?"   Leading the person who says things like this through their logical missteps never makes them happy.    But some of them can learn, can be dragged through the steps (as I was, as everyone who studies logic is)  of formal logic and clear thinking.  Some of course refuse.   You can't do anything with those but refuse to engage with them....they will waste your time, drag you down to their level as you feel more and more frustrated. 

So to engage in healthy discourse with someone you disagree with, you need to gather the facts that support your position (the best sources you can find, the most current data)  and present your facts--and listen to theirs--and with due regard for each other's facts, try to come to at least an understanding of one another's position, if you can't find middle ground on which to agree. 
If there is no basis for agreement, there may still be a basis for mutual respect--having each demonstrated to the other that you've done your homework, that there are facts on your side (even if the other guy thinks the facts on his side weigh more.)   

You must understand that how strongly you feel has zero effect on the facts.  You may feel very strongly indeed--you may be passionate about something--but that doesn't mean the other guy's facts don't count and you can ignore them.   It is not healthy (in discourse or for that matter psychology) to deny reality.   It is your responsibility--everyone's--to dig up facts and work with facts until they are more comfortable than opinions.  It is your responsibility--everyone's--to pick up the tools of clear thinking and learn to use them.   You may feel that your opinion should have the force of fact--that your appeal to tradition, to authority, should get the job done--but in healthy discourse there is no substitute for facts and sound logic.  Unless you can think--think outside the box of your opinions, your habitual reliance on slipshod logic, you cannot engage in healthy discourse.  

Disclaimer:  I don't do it perfectly myself.  I know that.   I learned the false logic first, and the sound logic later--and like most people, found the false logic seductive when I wanted something.   I spend considerable time hacking my way through the briars  almost every day.  But it's worth trying.  It's worth fighting out of the brambles of false logic every time you can, and trying to understand what, besides raw emotion, the opposition might have to say.   (The opposition needs to cooperate by following the same rules of discourse...)


From: mmegaera
2009-08-28 10:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I didn't take logic in school, and this spells it out very clearly.

I'm going to put it in my memories so I can refer back to it.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 01:09 am (UTC)
I took logic (and dairying) in the course of my second degree, largely for fun, I thought. I expected to skate through because I thought (ah, the confidence of the 20s) that having been brought up around lawyers I knew how to think logically.

No, I knew how to think *tactically*. Not the same thing. The only real logic I knew I'd learned as part of serious scholarly work--you don't try to prove your hypothesis, but *disprove* it--because if it's wrong, you want to find out before you humiliate yourself in front of your thesis committee (or Dr. Drew, who was a one-woman committee on things like that.)

Anyway--first day or two of logic class I felt like I was being kicked in the teeth, realizing that I didn't know what I thought I knew, but after that it was enormous fun. The math connection becomes obvious even before you get to the Venn diagrams. And it's much easier to do clean scholarly work if you understand Aristotelian logic. People will sniff at it, saying deductive logic doesn't lead to new discoveries--but what they don't want to admit is that it *tests* new discoveries. It's not the tool for making discoveries but the tool for determining if what you think you've found is really there. I think it put the polish on my ability to assess sources rapidly--a real help the next year in grad school.

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From: mmegaera
2009-08-29 02:27 am (UTC)
As a librarian I learned to use logic in the evaluation of research materials, both online and in print, but I'd just never seen it spelled out so succinctly and clearly. Proof is where you find it, and, I'm afraid, closely tied to one's prior beliefs most of the time, even when it shouldn't be.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 01:13 am (UTC)
I'm lucky in having met the right books (and instructors) at the right times. If I'd run into Sayers' _The Lost Tools of Learning_ in high school, I would not have caught on...I had to read Aristotle first, and I had to read Plato before Aristotle (not everyone needs them in that order, but I did. I had glanced at Aristotle and shrugged, but after Plato I suddenly wanted the next guy in line. And geometry was always my love (thank you, Mr. Baltis), and reading Euclid in Greek, sheer delight. (The only Greek that was sheer delight, with my lack of language talent!)

It was because of Sayers, read in the gap between the two degrees, that led me to take the logic course. Odd how things work.
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From: mmegaera
2009-08-29 02:28 am (UTC)
Ha. The best use for geometry is in quilting. If only I'd had a geometry teacher who quilted, I might not have almost flunked the class back in high school [g].
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2009-08-29 12:09 pm (UTC)
ah, yes: CADD software was actually invented for the convenience of quilters!

In my case, geometry was the ONLY "math" course I got an A in, in either high school or college, both of which I attended before the advent of handheld calculators for number-crunching. Just last week I added 1+2 and got 4 when I was tallying quantities in my engineering-tech Day Job. Which is why I'm an engineerng-tech, and not an Engineer.
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From: mmegaera
2009-08-29 06:14 pm (UTC)
CADD, schmadd [g].

Try http://www.electricquilt.com/Shop/EQ6/EQ6.asp. It was given to me as a gift, and I swear it's as addictive as the actual quilting. I've designed far more quilts than I have lifetime left to make.
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2009-08-29 09:28 pm (UTC)
EQ is just a special-purpose CADD derivative.
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From: mmegaera
2009-08-29 09:59 pm (UTC)
Which makes it much easier to use (EQ knows its audience -- the program is pretty much computer-neophyte proof).
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2009-08-29 10:50 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: allaboutm_e
2009-08-29 12:41 am (UTC)
Thanks for this eloquent post.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 01:14 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-08-29 06:08 am (UTC)
Hrm, I'd noticed the post initially and almost responded... before I managed to restrain myself, because I thought I smelled troll. Didn't realise there'd been an event until I read these two latest posts...

And I feel it may be an odd way to express it, seeing as this is your space as you say, but I'm appreciative of your stance on these things. I enjoy reading your books, to the point that you were the first author I followed/sought out online, and I've been glad to enjoy your blog posts as well. When people act like that, is seems to sort of poison the air, if that makes any sense? And it happens so often online. It's nice to know that can't happen here =)

On the subject of logical discourse though, I'd say this would be an excellent primer for any class or such *chuckles* It'd be nice if the subject were mandatory in education... or at least required for certain professions, like politicians and news media ;P

Be well,

P.S. I'd login with my OpenId when I post, but livejournal seems to hate mine =P
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[User Picture]From: londonbard
2009-08-29 08:12 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. Would you object to my printing it out? I would like to be able to refer to it while not on-line, at times. (I can't connect to the Internet while at the Committee office.)

There don't seem to be any logic classes locally, which is frustrating. My mind may be the best weapon I've got and I'd like it to be as sharp and accurate as possible!
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 03:22 pm (UTC)
Yes, you can print it out.

If you can find a copy of _Introductory Logic_ by Kilgore, it's a good textbook that you can use as a better reference than my brief essay. While looking up that book online (to see if it was easily available) I found a website that summarizes Kilgore's list of informal fallacies--there's a lot there, and it's not Kilgore's site, so it may be a copyright violation (individual appears to have also used Kilgore's examples of the fallacies, which may exceed fair use) but it's a useful tool nonetheless.


Still, I think more explanation than this would be helpful to most people (that would include me.)

Only the 1968 edition of Kilgore's book is available on Amazon.com; the 1988 is unavailable. They list 15 copies, new and used, from $5. The current popular text appears to be by Nance--I've never read it, so I don't know how hard or easy it is. Still...the old Kilgore's available, with one at least only $5. Which is cheaper than the newer texts.

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[User Picture]From: londonbard
2009-08-31 10:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much indeed. That Website looks very useful but I would defininitely need more information.

The book proved to be unavailable in London and very expensive on Amazon UK. I would not have thought of trying Amazon US if you hadn't told me about it - but I was able to buy that $5 copy! (It's much more affordable than any of the UK copies even with the shipping.)

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[User Picture]From: ajl_r
2009-08-29 08:44 am (UTC)
Thank you for a very interesting post. There do seem to be a fair few people around to whom the old saying 'my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts' might be said to apply.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 03:30 pm (UTC)
I've read some explanations of that phenomenon and we've all seen it in action. In a relatively stable world, in which the dangers and rewards are well known and stay much the same from generation to generation, having fixed beliefs that substitute for research, innovation, and thinking is linked to survival. You don't "find out" each time if rattlesnake bites are bad for you--or that ice must be a certain thickness before you can walk on it...you accept authority because authority has been shown to be right over a long enough period. I read an essay once that said marginal societies--where survival is tough for everyone all the time--cannot afford experimentation, if what they already know works. Which it does, or they'd have died off.

But those who want to control people use fear tactics to convince people that they, too, are in a survival mode--and thus must accept Authority. You get people scared of something and they are more controllable. Once frightened people are in a herd with a Leader, it's much scarier for them to stop and think...now they have not only the initiating fear (attack, invasion, sickness, hunger, hellfire, whatever) to be afraid of, but the displeasure of the others in their group their Leader. They have emotional reasons to embrace denial.

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[User Picture]From: khall
2009-08-29 08:57 pm (UTC)
       You mean like...when someone tells us that taking off our shoes, before we get on an airplane, will protect us from the terrorists? Or that showing our driver's license, will? Or that consenting to a slackadaisal search of our person and personal belongings? It's almost like you're implying that these are social controls and not actual security measures.:)

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 10:23 pm (UTC)
That would be a whole different post. Which I may make someday but not today, on which a large number of time-consuming, tedious chores have landed.
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2009-08-29 12:11 pm (UTC)

P S I think your cut line didn't quite work

Everything is still showing below the "Read more" line.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 03:30 pm (UTC)

Re: P S I think your cut line didn't quite work

Yes, I know. There's nothing I can do about that. It's LJ's software.
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[User Picture]From: magentametrix
2009-08-29 02:15 pm (UTC)
I've had no formal training in logic, but as a scientist, I've been well drilled in how to make and evaluate an argument. Your post gave me words to describe why arguing with some people makes me want to tear my hair out.

Since this is my first response to one of your posts, I'll take the opportunity to tell you that Sheepfarmer's Daughter was the first of my favorite books that my son read. He loved Paks as much as I did. He has just returned from boot camp and compared parts of the experience to his memories of Paks' experiences. I believe that she is part of the reason he was drawn to the military.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-08-29 03:31 pm (UTC)
From one mother to another--I pray that he returns safely from all deployments.

Do let him know, if he doesn't, that more Paks-world books are in the works.
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From: zackthedog
2009-08-29 02:41 pm (UTC)


Brilliantly spoken, as usual.
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[User Picture]From: toraks
2009-09-01 03:09 pm (UTC)

Very well described (I followed mmegeara's link here)

As a scientist, who was taught scientific method early, this has always been internalized as long as I can remember.

Your post has great examples that I wish a lot of people would read, understand, and use from now on!

I tend to have high standards as to what I consider proper evidence and generally end up not arguing with anyone about anythinng online because I rarely have the time to argue it properly to my own standards. This, of course, doesn't preclude me from reading all sorts of unhealthy discourse online and constantly biting my tongue, ummmm...fingers? ;-)

Thanks! I have a feeling I'll be referring people back to this post often!
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-09-01 03:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah...it can take all day to untangle and refute one illogical post, and who has the time?

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