If your argument keeps shifting from one time to the next, can I trust that you are really open to argument (i.e., to examining evidence, reasoning, and assumptions)?

What follows is one of my own contributions in an activity for the first few weeks of a course in critical thinking, in which students are asked to “tease out a range of arguments people—including yourself—are not happy with, find patterns in them (including across other students’ contributions, not only your own), and try to find ways to be constructive, not denunciatory, of what you disagree with or are perplexed by.”

Situation:
Shifting position regarding climate change by skeptics or deniers.
What gets argued:

  1. Weather is cold this year—that counters the idea of global warming.
  2. Average temperature goes up and down from one year to next, and from one era to next—Global warming is a natural phenomenon independent of human influence.
  3. The scientific study of supposed climate change is distorted or biased by researchers who have a vested interest in showing that climate change is happening.
  4. There is scientific dispute about how much human influence is affecting climate change.
  5. We need to be more certain about the amount of future climate change before making policy to reduce human influence.
  6. Humans have always adapted to climate change—we should wait and adapt to whatever change happens.
  7. Policies to reduce human influence inhibit the economic development that will provide resources to respond to climate change later.
  8. Policies to reduce US influence on climate change are unfair because new economic giants are making smaller reductions in their influence.
  9. Policies that reduce the influence on climate change in proportion to a country’s past as well as present contribution to greenhouse gases are unfair because we didn’t know about the greenhouse effect until quite recently.

Commentary:
Each of these propositions could be the basis for a reasonable exchange. What I am not happy with is when the proposition shifts from one time to the next, especially without acknowledging that the shift was because the previous proposition was no longer tenable. That makes it hard for me to trust that the arguer is really open to argument (i.e., to examining evidence, reasoning, and assumptions) or that they reflect on what led them to advocate for a position they later saw was untenable. Moreover, the shift makes me suspect that there is a deeper issue than those stated explicitly.
Alternatives:
1. In an ideal world I could ask, “What are your standards for having an argument?” and, once stated, ask “Who can hold us to those standards and keep us from withdrawing from argument?” Only with that in place do we address any proposition.
2. Ask as caringly as possible: “Can you remember a time when you were younger that those in authority or with power wouldn’t stop to listen to you? How did that make you feel? What would you want to have said to them to get them to listen?” (This approach sidesteps the climate change issue on the assumption that there’s a deep sense of resenting authority/power that doesn’t care about the person. Not sure of that assumption or that it would be constructive to make space to explore it. Thoughts?)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to If your argument keeps shifting from one time to the next, can I trust that you are really open to argument (i.e., to examining evidence, reasoning, and assumptions)?

  1. I was struck by the comment that you suspect that there are deeper issues involved (I agree) which if they were teased out could lead to some other alternatives for you to consider and to try in the dialogue process on this topic.

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