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The art of argumentation

One of my favorite writers is David Simon, one of the creators of the TV miniseries The Wire, Treme and The Corner. He also wrote the excellent non-fiction books Homicide (which I read last year) and The Corner, which I'm working my way through now (man, it's a rough ride!). 

The Wire creator David Simon (left) with actor Andre Royo (Bubbles)
He also maintains a blog called the Audacity of Despair, which I check in on occasionally, but not frequently enough. Normally, the comments sections of most blogs and news sites are nasty swamplands filed with noxious vapors. But I actually enjoy reading the comments area of Simon's blog (as well as that of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Simon's arguments and counterarguments are sharp, concise and always on-point. I always take notes and practice his methods in my own arguments, which as an advocate for diversity and equal opportunity in astronomy, I get plenty of practice. 

One of the things I've noticed about Simon's argumentation style is that he doesn't pretend that politeness is the only acceptable way to engage in civil discourse. Politeness is a tool, to be employed when most effective or appropriate. But there are other tools at ones disposal, and plenty of times when the argument that needs to be made is not polite at all. If someone is thoughtless enough to punch me in the face, I'm not going to try and hug them. 

The art of arguing (image credit)
The over-reliance on politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. Wait, let me clarify that. The over-reliance on apparent politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. I suspect this dates back to the era when astronomy was run by British gentleman, and the tendency of the older generation of astronomers to romanticize that period of time. But as a uber-minority in monochromatic field of science living in a race-obsessed country, I have no inclination to romanticize the past. I can admire the specific accomplishments of past astronomers. But I refuse to diefy them, given that they conducted science as part of such an exclusive club. A club with minimal competition and minimal participation from others with better ideas. 

This is probably a major reason why I appear so confrontational to my peers in astronomy. The fact that I don't respect all points of view is seen as intolerance. But I see it as the result of a critical selection process. If an idea has merit, I'll respect it. If it lacks merit, then the idea deserves to be dragged out into the light and squished. If that makes the person with the idea feel bad, then go back to the drawing board and try again. Its the idea that was bad, not necessarily the person who made it. The only way we get better at critical thinking is to toss out ideas and see what sticks and what gets thrown back. I learned this in my college dorm common area and on long road trips with my college buddies. I've learned it since then in talking with my colleagues. 
"Distinguished" men of science, from Wiki commons. Leaving open the
question of from whom did these men distinguished themselves? Other
white male aristocrats? If so, that's quite the competitive talent pool!
Everyone has a right to say what's on their mind. But if one's idea is intellectually weak on its face or insulting in its reception, then there should be no expectation that it be respected. To be sure, a person's statement should be acknowledged. "I recognize that you think that horrible thought and are willing to say it aloud." But there should be no expectation whatever that a statement should be respected. "I'm sorry, but that's the most insulting thing I've heard this year. What's it like to not have to think critically before speaking?" Yet I've found many otherwise bright people in science, and in astronomy in particular, who believe otherwise. 

So it was with great pleasure and rapt attention that I read a comment thread at the end of Simon's post about the movie 12 Years a Slave---a movie that I will watch, but I know it's going to be a tough viewing given that it's one of Hollywood's few true-to-life depictions of the American institution of slavery. I hear the movie pulls no punches in depicting the fundamental American institution upon which our nation was founded, namely the state-sanctioned dehumanization of an entire group of people, and the state-sponsored system of terrorism that was used to enforce it over several centuries. 

Here's one of the commenters, a typical troll, along with his apologist buddy. Also included is Simon's expert response. Watch and learn. This is how it's done. I've added my personal comments in bold to draw parallels with how this exact pattern plays out in discussions of social issues among astronomers.

Wouldn’t it just be easier, more honest and less painful for you to just leave the U.S. and try hating it from the outside? (Note how rude this comment is. Without prompting the commenter invites the author to leave the country, with no knowledge of Simon's true, complex feelings about his country of birth. This rudeness sets the stage for all that follows.)
    It would not annoy the likes of you nearly enough for my tastes. Dissent is the most American characteristic there is, which makes your unwillingness to entertain so much as an acknowledgment of the human cost of slavery or the moral compromises inherent in our constitutional premise, well, un-American. So while there are obviously fundamental reasons for me to maintain my allegiance to this country and to continue my participation as a citizen, the fact that it grinds the asses of simplistic, binary-brained, America-right-or-wrong bumpkins such as yourself is all just bonus. (Okay, the name-calling is not such an effective tactic, IMO. But I understand when it comes to trolls. Simon does not pretend to be polite. Just Al's comment was rude and there's no reason to expect politeness in response. Simon asserts his right as a citizen to dissent and correctly notes who is actually acting un-American.)
      That was an epic take down and you nailed who this person really is, un-American! Good to have you back!
    • JUST AL
      So your real intent is to annoy? Ah, a lofty ambition indeed. For a brief second I thought perhaps that you might really believe in all that tripe.
      I get it now,..this is just your routine, your hook. Thanks for the clarification dave. (note how Just Al sidesteps his original argument (you should leave the country) and Simon's response to that "argument." He now instead picks at the meta-level of what Simon wrote. This is very standard for poor argumentation. Constantly change the focus: bob and weave and run.
        Really? That’s what you’ve got left in the tank? Embarrassing. (If Just Al had any self awareness, he would be embarrassed. But he's just a troll and I'm sure he got what he wanted: attention)
        What part of ‘bonus’ do you not understand?
      Why did you insult Just Al in your response to his posting? He asked a fair question. (in comes Brendan, the apologist who can usually be found in tow behind a troll. In his estimation asking someone to leave the country for expressing a dissenting view is a "fair question.")
      Your anger on certain topics is noted, even admired by me. But why don’t you start walking the walk instead of just talking (er, writing) the talk? You’ve taken no stands that I’m aware of — other than wait around for Jury Duty so you can nullify. Some of your television work is entertaining & noteworthy, but none of it has moved the needle toward any progress in areas you purportedly care about. Therefore, you often come across as someone who does, in fact, hate this place. Your whole “love letter from a conflicted lover” validation makes little sense. Either do something about it, or politely live your life and say “thank you” to people like us who gave you a 2nd career.
      But a 1%’er blogging about his/her anger is not inspirational.
        A fair question? Are you actually attempting to suggest that making a supposition that I hate my country merely because I criticize its policies and behavior at points isn’t an uncorroborated, unevidenced claim, embarrassing on its face? Or that then proceeding from that unevidenced allegation to suggest it would be better if I practiced such criticism after abandoning the country isn’t an ignorant and un-American attempt at ad hominem?
        Either way, Brendan, it’s charity enough for me to answer your question without insult, because your premise is insulting.
        You and Mr. Al do not seem to understand either the role of dissent in a republic, nor the boundaries of logic and rhetoric. Criticizing my country is in no way indicative of hating it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am an American. I love my country and hope for it to behave honorably and not shamefully, and for citizens to know the difference. America, right or wrong. When right, keep her right. When wrong, make her right. And an open discussion of the issues at hand is a fundamental first step in that process, for all of us.
        Much of my storytelling is predicated on a belief in that process. Much of my rhetoric as well. Numerous political “stands” have been undertaken and argued. And if engaging in the marketplace of ideas doesn’t move the needle sufficiently for your satisfaction, then no matter, you can go elsewhere to engage, act or even consider and assert for ideas and argument. But that marketplace is being serviced here. That is my vocation, and I take it seriously. If you do not, then there is no need to remain here venting, is there? Further, you are, of course, wholly ignorant of any less public and more personal ways in which I engage as a citizen, aren’t you? Yet you arrive at a forum for civic debate and complain ridiculously because I am here, engaged in civic debate. Really?
        But enough about me. Can you forgo the dumbass ad hominem and address yourself to the substance of a specific issue? Or do you find more relevance in chasing a narrow caricature of David Simon around the room? (nuff said)
        • BRENDAN
          I wasn’t responding to your original post; I was responding to your response to a reader’s response. Therefore, I don’t think I went ad hom on you. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t consider myself an expert on the original topic so I didn’t address your original post (d00d, then why are you here? To defend the trolls?). I enjoy reading your opinions on certain things, which is why I come here. But just because I visit doesn’t mean I can’t chase you around the room when you deserve it. I thought that was the intent of a blog / message board. The entire model of an online chat is built for one big ad hom fest if you insist on being so stringent about it.
          And yes, I can address ssubstance. I would love to debate you on certain topics and try to debunk some of the hypotheses you’ve hatched as a citizen economist and citizen criminologist.
          I enjoy your work (mostly) but your ideas are not above critique just because you used to write newspaper articles. There are other ways to gain knowledge in life.
          • DAVID SIMON
            Okay to all of that. (note the acknowledgement of Brendan's points. This is more polite than I'd be.)
            But if you can’t understand why one American asking another to leave this country over any political views is offensive and ignorant and deserving of my contempt, then, Brendan, I am obliged to hold your own understanding of American citizenship in extremely low regard. There are many, many moments in our history when dissent is the more American attribute and indeed the more patriotic course. (But note how he doesn't let Brendan scurry away from the key point. My take is that Simon sees the opportunity to reach a thinking individual. This is probably why he is now employing more respectful, polite language.)
            The OP’s suggestion was cretinous. It deserved all of my reply and your suggestion that it did not touched on argumentum ad hominem. (But he doesn't let the original poster off the hook for his silliness)
            • BRENDAN
              DS -
              I wrote you an apology email via this site’s Contact page. I hope your webmaster is able to get it to you. No strings attached, not pitching you anything. Just a concession/admission of guilt on my part after some reflection. (Wow!)


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