Erisology: the new science of how to argue -- constructively

PODCAST: John Nerst on "Erisology, the study of disagreement"

EXCERPT: . . . The concept of decoupling is erisology at its best. Expanding on the writing of the mathematician and blogger Sarah Constantin, who was herself drawing on the work of the psychologist Keith Stanovich, [John] Nerst describes decoupling as simply the idea of removing extraneous context from a given claim and debating that claim on its own, rather than the fog of associations, ideologies, and potentials swirling around it.

When I first heard of decoupling, I immediately thought about the nervous way in which liberals discuss intelligence research. There is overwhelming evidence that intelligence, as social scientists define and measure it, has a strong hereditary component; according to some estimates, genetic factors account for about half the variation in intelligence among individuals. None of that has anything to do with race, because races do not map neatly onto genetic difference. But because the link between intelligence and genetics is so steeped in oppression and ugly history—that is, because charlatans have so eagerly cited nonsense “research” purporting to demonstrate Europeans’ natural superiority—discussions even of well-founded studies about intelligence often end in acrimony over their potential misuse.

Once you know a term like decoupling, you can identify instances in which a disagreement isn’t really about X anymore, but about Y and Z. When some readers first raised doubts about a now-discredited Rolling Stone story describing a horrific gang rape at the University of Virginia, they noted inconsistencies in the narrative. Others insisted that such commentary fit into destructive tropes about women fabricating rape claims, and therefore should be rejected on its face. The two sides weren’t really talking; one was debating whether the story was a hoax, while the other was responding to the broader issue of whether rape allegations are taken seriously. Likewise, when scientists bring forth solid evidence that sexual orientation is innate, or close to it, conservatives have lashed out against findings that would “normalize” homosexuality. But the dispute over which sexual acts, if any, society should discourage is totally separate from the question of whether sexual orientation is, in fact, inborn. Because of a failure to decouple, people respond indignantly to factual claims when they’re actually upset about how those claims might be interpreted.

Nerst believes that the world can be divided roughly into “high decouplers,” for whom decoupling comes easy, and “low decouplers,” for whom it does not. This is the sort of area where erisology could produce empirical insights: What characterizes people’s ability to decouple? Nerst believes that hard-science types are better at it, on average, while artistic types are worse. After all, part of being an artist is seeing connections where other people don’t—so maybe it’s harder for them to not see connections in some cases. Nerst might be wrong. Either way, it’s the sort of claim that could be fairly easily tested if the discipline caught on.

Another potential avenue for erisology is to produce interventions to promote more healthy ways of arguing. “If it would become a proper field, it would be interesting to see whether training people to identify common pitfalls of disagreement would make them argue better and be less responsive to bad argumentation,” Nerst explained. Again, only experimental studies can answer the question.

Nerst is nothing if not prolific, and at first glance this field can appear a bit sprawling and impregnable. Nerst explains in “What is Erisology?” that, “off the top of [his] head,” he thinks the new field should draw on the insights of more than a dozen disciplines ranging from traditional philosophy, to anthropology, to post-structuralist theory. And as he explained to me, the details thus far “are portioned out among 70 blog posts and 170,000 words.” That’s almost two books’ worth of theorizing. But once you learn about erisology, you see its potential applications everywhere.

When I ran the concept of erisology by a couple of political scientists who study disagreement, I got some unexpected pushback. Though Nerst has claimed that “no one needs to be convinced” of the needlessly adversarial quality of online discourse, the Syracuse University political scientist Emily Thorson isn’t buying it. “I actually do need to be convinced about this,” she said in an email, “or at least about the larger implication that ‘uncivil online discourse’ is a problem so critical that we need to invent a new discipline to solve it. I’d argue that much of the dysfunction we see in online interactions is just a symptom of much larger and older social problems, including but not limited to racism and misogyny. Our time would be better spent addressing those issues.”

Thorson argued that disagreements on Twitter or comment threads do not usually entail people “trying to understand each other but failing due to ‘pitfalls.’ Rather, their goal is to affirm their identity, and often that involves aggressively demeaning someone who has a different identity from them. And so these conversations aren’t ‘dysfunctional’; they’re functioning exactly how the participants intend them to—as defenses of their identity, not as deliberative forums.”

Samara Klar, an associate political-science professor at the University of Arizona and the co-author of Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction, points out that for all the talk of online hostility, in the real world, there’s a lot less evidence that people with political disagreements are at one another’s throats as frequently as a blood-splattered Twitter feed might indicate. If anything, there’s some evidence of the opposite—a growing number of Americans are sick of politically overheated disagreement and are retreating from it. Klar cites research that shows that people think they’ll dislike engaging in political debate with those across the aisle from them, but that when they actually do (in a real-world experimental setting), they often end up enjoying the experience. “The truth is, a growing percentage of Americans are more angry about politics in general than they are toward members of the other party specifically.” (MORE - details)
Leftists aren't interested in debating the facts or staying on topic, much less debating a claim on its own. When their arguments are largely anecdotal, emotional, fallacious, etc., they can't afford to be honest debaters. When one side is debating the facts, it's the other side that is guilty of not engaging in the actual debate.

The author is guilty of what he argues against and blindly blames the other side for his willingness to accept "close to it" as "solid evidence"...those aren't synonymous.

Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)