Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The limits of debate

Ezra Klein quotes Julian Sanchez on the problems with debate in general:
Give me a topic I know fairly intimately, and I can often make a convincing case for absolute horseshit. Convincing, at any rate, to an ordinary educated person with only passing acquaintance with the topic. A specialist would surely see through it, but in an argument between us, the lay observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of us really had the better case on the basis of the arguments alone—at least not without putting in the time to become something of a specialist himself. Actually, I have a plausible advantage here as a peddler of horseshit: I need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.
I think this difficulty illuminates a lot of the problems with our current political and civic discourse. If someone has no principles and is willing to spew absolute horseshit in support of their view, only those with specialized knowledge will be in a position to call them on it. And in our society, nobody but John Stewart seems to be calling anyone on their horseshit. (And he can't be a specialist in everything.)


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