On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position

You find an ant mound in your house. Would you call an exterminator to remove it? Or would you treat it with “dignity” and offer to fight it in a “fair” duel?

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way arguments and debate work in modern society. Whereas the common sense choice is simply to remove the ant mound as fast as possible, the politically correct choice is to hear “both sides” of the story, run smear campaigns against the ant mound while defending against verbal insults made on yourself, and then put the ultimate decision to a referendum of not-the-most-intelligent voters, hoping they side with you and not the swarm of ants.

Debates and arguments are more focused today on winning vs. losing, not on right vs wrong, or truth vs fiction, or reason vs insanity.

The Appeal to Image

An enormous problem with this style of debate is that it gives too much legitimacy to the inferior position. A debate should focus on drawing logical conclusions from facts, not on maintaining personal reputations. For nearly all publicized debates, winning is glorified and losing is stigmatized.

Yet in the scientific disciplines, losing happens all the time, and if the loser is able to admit it, he is the one who actually learns more from the debate by discarding his outdated or incorrect theory, and progressing forward with a better one.

To quote Carl Sagan:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

In math, it is even better. You only need to come up with a correct proof or disproof, and every reasonable mathematician will agree with the correct side. There is literally no legitimate argument for the other side, because logically, it cannot exist.

Consider the equation 0.999… = 1. There is no ambiguity of truth to this statement. It can be proved many, many ways, though even one way is enough. We cannot pass such a statement to a referendum for a popular vote, as it is conceivable that the majority of the population will vote that the statement is false, yet among mathematicians, the vote will be unanimous for truth.

The act of even putting “False” on the ballot in the first place would be misleading to a non-mathematical voter. If I didn’t know enough math to deduce the truth of the statement, and all I saw on the ballot were “True” and “False,” I would probably think: “Well, since these positions are even on the ballot in the first place, it probably means there are some mathematicians arguing for ‘True’ and some arguing for ‘False.’ That means I need to use my own math skill. Hmm, obviously 0.9 is less than 1, 0.99 is less than 1, 0.999 is less than 1, so 0.999… is less than 1. I vote ‘False.’ ”

Yet, no one goes around protesting that the “other side” of this argument should be taught in schools, as whether 0.999… = 1 is irrelevant to their beliefs. When it comes to biology though, it becomes different.

Probably the most ridiculous instance of giving too much legitimacy to the inferior position is the evolution vs creationism “debate.” Just as among mathematicians there is no debate as whether 0.999… = 1, there is no debate among biologists as to whether evolution or creation led to where we are. By no debate, we mean that at least 99.85% of scientists in the earth and life sciences agree with evolution. Although, from just looking at the media, one might not expect this to be the case. Same with huge wastes of time and money that shouldn’t have even existed. There’s a difference between teaching true controversy and the disgrace of “Teach the Controversy,” which is just “Teach the Idiocy.”

It is much worse in religious debates, as religion somehow has a magical spell protecting it from all criticism. You’re encouraged to disagree all you want about musical taste, food, fashion, and even politics, but the moment anything remotely close to religion is debated, it is “offensive” and “disrespectful.” Other than due to an unfortunate social norm, Why? Why is it acceptable for an uneducated person to vocally disagree with scientists about matters of science and have their own article about it in the news, yet it is unacceptable for even an intellectual to disagree regarding religion?

It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anything they say must be respected, so they can make intolerant statements such as saying all people who disagree with them are fools, and as an audience we’re supposed to respect that. Just why? If an ignorant person calls you a fool, you have no responsibility to respect that opinion.

The Freedom of Speech

But we have the freedom of speech, you might say. We can say whatever we want.

Indeed, I think free speech is one of the most important features of an advanced, civilized society. (The lack of free speech is one of the reasons I despise modern China.) But there’s a difference between having the right to say whatever you want and the right to force an ignorant belief onto other people. Free speech lets you say the Earth is flat without being arrested by the government. But it sure doesn’t let you force the Flat-Earth theory into textbooks in public education. Or astrology. Or slavery. Or the 2012 doomsday.

Dissent from oppression is imperative. Dissent from authority is necessary. But dissent from truth is blindness. No matter how much one might protest the truth, the truth stays put. It is we who must adapt to the truth, not adapt the truth for us. The Freedom of Speech is not the Freedom to Brainwash.

Even the act of having to write this post deeply upsets me. Ideally this should all be Common Sense, yet Thomas Paine seems to have been all but forgotten by the inhabitants of America.

Seems like it’s about time for another Enlightenment, another Age of Reason.

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