How to argue scientifically
Step 1: Okay, someone is telling you something you disagree with. Recognize the fact that you’ve been wrong before. Regardless of how absurd his idea is remember that all the things you were wrong about before you initially though were absurd. The same thing could very well be happening again.
Step 2: Assume that if this person believes what they’re saying then they must have a compelling reason to. You might find in the end that it’s not logical, but since it’s strong enough to influence him there must be something to it. Find out his reasons for believing what he’s saying before you disagree with him. In fact, press him to keep talking. Find out everything there is to know about the topic before criticizing it.
Step 3: Don’t respond yet. Tell the person, “Give me a few minutes to think about this.” or better yet, “Let me sleep on it. We’ll continue this conversation tomorrow.”
Step 4: Assume/pretend the other person is right. Block out your beliefs for a time and look at the world through his eyes. Imagine living a life where you walk around believing what you were just told.
Step 5: Consider his arguments objectively. Imagine that you’re a scientist in a laboratory where ideas can be stored in petri dishes. In one dish is his argument. In another his his. Take your argument and put it on a shelf. Take his argument and put it under a microscope. Use logic to dissect it and study it independent of how it relates to your ideas. Put your initial hypothesis about the outcome out of your mind. This is a clinical study where scientific truth is more important than winning. In fact, the only way to truly win is to arrive at the truth. (Side Note: the book “How to Argue and Win Every Time” is an amazingly enlightening analysis of this concept.)
Furthermore, disregard the source of the idea you’re studying. Just because the idea came out of “The Communist Manifesto,” “Mein Kampf,” or “The Bible” doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Of course, it doesn’t mean is must be true either. It doesn’t matter if the person you’re arguing with is your father who you respect deeply and who himself insists he’s the head of the house and you must obey him. It doesn’t matter if the person you’re arguing with is an immature, conceited, hypocritical wanker. The source has nothing to do with the idea. So separate the two for the time being.
Step 6: Take the results of your scientific dissection and file them away. Then take your own ideas and put them under the microscope. Even if you’ve studied them before the fact that they’re being challenged means there’s a chance you might have missed something. Consider where your ideas came from. Did you really adopt them because you’d done all the math and arrived that this was the correct answer yourself or did somebody else tell you they were true? Dissect your arguments with the scalpel of logic again. Be brutal about it. Get angry at your ideas. Hate them. Tear them apart with the fury of a lover who just found out his soul mate was cheating on him.
Step 7: Compare the results from both of your studies understanding that the goal of the study isn’t to determine who is right and who is wrong. Arguments almost never black and white. You could both be right about some things and wrong about some things. The goal of the study is to take the good and bad of both arguments and mix them together to create the real truth. If at the end of the study you accept or reject the opposing idea completely you probably did your math wrong. If you do find fault on either side of the argument don’t simply throw that petri dish away. If an idea has flaws then fix them.
Step 8: If you want to you can present your findings to the person you argued with, but this isn’t necessary. This whole process was never a battle between people. It was really an internal battle in your personal search for truth. Whether or not you can convince the other person of your findings is irrelevant.
Step 9: If you do decide to continue the argument with the other person don’t worry about winning. Simply explain your findings to him, and if he doesn’t like it then end the conversation. Winning an argument won’t do anything for you except stroke your ego, which is pointless. However, if the other person is willing to engage in an objective debate then by all means proceed. Two heads are better than one.
Step 10: Watch for personal attacks. Once either side throws a personal attack the conversation is over. Dialogue has broken down, and neither side is listening objectively anymore. So you may as well quit. And remember that the person who throws the first body shot is probably wrong. If you had logical reasons for your argument you’d be using them instead of calling the other person names. And the more you make fun of the other person the more of a case you build that you never really had anything to say at all and are a close-minded bigot who just likes to fight.
That’s my method. Do I always use it? No. Do I defend my ideas without spending all night analyzing them? Sometimes. Do I call people names sometimes? Yes. Does that mean my method isn’t valid? No. Does it make me a bad person? Yes. But then again, we’re all bad people.
Originally published at thewisesloth.com on October 30, 2009.