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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rationality, critical thinking and Phil Plait: the limits of civil discourse

As you can tell by looking over to the right a little, I follow quite a few blogs. Dozens, in fact. Lots of friends on Facebook and hundreds of tweeters as well. And sometimes I just go surfing, clicking on links without any preconceived objective, just to keep reading. So I can't really remember how I found this, but thank you to whoever pointed me to it.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Rather timely, I think, because it's hard to be a skeptic, especially given the institutional energy devoted to pushing packaged narratives and manufactured storylines. It's never been easy to swim against the current, let alone persuade others to do likewise.

What's particularly worthwhile about Plait's presentation, though, is the passage from which the title is taken (at about the 24:30 mark). As he argues, no matter how wrong people's beliefs are, you're not likely to convince them they're mistaken if you're insulting them. Mea culpa, therefore, given the tone of yesterday's post about Rob Ford's supporters and "suburban fury."

But it raises a number of issues, for me at least, about civility and civil discourse. I've written previously about the obligations of civic engagement, and how the tone of public conversation has been poisoned and corrupted, deliberately, by the likes of Fox Noise and the Rove / Murdoch cult. You don't have to dig too deep to see Stephen Harper, Kory Teneycke and the folks at Sun Media using the same playbook. 

One of the comments on Plait's presentation argues that debate isn't so much about changing your opponent's mind as it is about convincing as many members of the audience as possible. Plait himself alludes to that, I think, in his remarks about the "big tent." Whether you agree with that or not, though, it implies another question: when you're making an argument, whom are you trying to convince? And does it indeed suggest that a commitment to civil discourse implies an obligation to listen respectfully and hear out any and all opposing viewpoints, no matter how outlandish?

I haven't worked this out in full, but this, I think, is where I run up against the limits of Phil Plait's argument. One of the worst aspects of the Karl Rove playbook, and one we see the Harper government embracing with relish, is the calculated devaluing of science, evidence-based decisionmaking, and acquired expertise. The script is familiar: dismiss experts as elitists out of touch with real people, and insist on "balance,"and demand that people should hear "both sides of the issue." It's how the denialists manage to derail any serious attempts to address climate change, for example.  

The effect is to set up a whole array of false equivalencies based on two faulty assumptions: firstly, that complex issues can be reduced to a simple "he said / she said" storyline, and secondly, that both sides of this artificially framed issue are valid and deserving of equal time. Which is why we see entire social movements devoted to pushing creationism, and school textbooks forced to include disclaimers that evolution is just a theory.  

And this is where I get off the bus. Yes, civil discourse is preferable to inflammatory rhetoric, and yes, reasoned debate is better than screaming and namecalling. But there's no obligation to treat creationism, cultish superstition or other forms of manufactured stupidity with the same weight or serious consideration as the body of scientific, rationally tested and demonstrated knowledge we've developed since the Enlightenment. And if people continue to cling to it in the face of fact and evidence, out of laziness, dogmatism or sheer spite, they don't deserve to be treated with respect.

If that makes me a snobby condescending elitist, fine. Sue me.

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