by Judith Curry
“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?” – Daniel Dennett
An interesting post at brainpickings.com: How to criticize with kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the art of arguing intelligently. Excerpts:
“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.
In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.
This little essay definitely struck a chord with me. In the midst of mudslinging this past week about my new book but most particularly my forthcoming lecture at the Marshall Institute Roundtable, I see how pointless all this mudslinging is. I tweeted this:
Wow. This is just like high school. The cool kids aren’t allowed to talk to other groups? Sorry I don’t play by your rules.
The most compelling statement to me in the essay was this one:
It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.
This statement has made me rethink my decision to respond to Gavin Schmidt’s response to my 50-50 Argument essay. My remarks in the Atlantic vs Pacific vs AGW thread were reactions, not a response or a critique. My challenge is that I have been particularly short of time as of late, with preparing for a number of public lectures. Responding to Gavin’s response would provide a good opportunity to try out Dennett’s approach. But don’t hold your breath for a quick response, I am traveling/lecturing extensively through late October. I will be at a workshop in late Oct that Gavin is also attending; I will certainly try to post my response before then.