Friday, February 02, 2007

The Nature of Argument

Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) isn't Socrates - he's a humorist. But he likes to provoke people into exposing and explaining the sources of their beliefs - whether these beliefs are about Intelligent Design or the War Against Terrorism. He has posted a number of outrageous statements and suggestions on his blog, and invited his readers to produce arguments for and against.

Does he believe any of these things himself? I don't think it matters. All he seems to care about is the reaction he can produce - getting attention, getting people to think about things in a new light, perhaps raising a wry smile. Which is a pretty normal motive for any humorist.

Unlike many humorists, he even carefully frames his statements to make their hypothetical or didactic status clear. Okay class, how many of you can think of a good reason why X wouldn't work? How many different arguments can you produce to persuade me to believe Y?

But like a good hypnotist, he cleverly plays with the logical levels, so that his audience get confused. Which parts are content and which parts are frame? Those readers who are already filled with passion about a subject are particularly vulnerable to experiencing an emotional reaction - getting indignant about something he has been careful not to say.

Someone who has repeatedly risen to the bait is one PZ Myers, an academic biologist who maintains a science blog called Pharyngula. His contributions to the debate include these ad hominem gems:
Myers' attacks take Adam's statements as naive assertions of belief. That's rather like accusing Socrates of stupidity because of the "dumb" questions he asks about the nature of justice.

Let me repeat - Scott Adams is not Socrates. But then PZ Myers isn't exactly Thomas Huxley either.

Wikipedia: Ad Hominem Argument, Scott Adams, PZ Myers,
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1 comment:

Robin Wilton said...

I particularly enjoyed the following sequitur:

"Listen, Dilbonians: you can stop telling me I have no sense of humor. I know it already. I also know that Scott Adams has a piss-poor sense of humor, too."

I mean, it stands to reason. Look at Beethoven. Deaf as a post... and his music was sh*t.

No, wait... I'm tone-deaf, but Beethoven's music was still sh*t. QED.