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A Standard for Demagogues

Raise the bar for those who would subvert rational analysis
  [vote for,

Far too many arguments for or against important issues are "sold" to people by promoters who have a vested interest in one side versus the other, and who are thus motivated to deny that contrary options exist that some might consider reasonable. To the extent that this denial is successful, the "buyer's" ability to make a rational decision is also denied.

Now, you and I are smart enough not to fall for this kind of demagoguery. But abundant evidence suggests that many decisions are affected by it, to the detriment of our ability as a civilization to find the wisest path.

So I propose that we begin to insist on a minimum standard that must be met by anyone who would try to persuade us to agree with him/her on any important issue. Whenever we are faced with a one-sided argument, we should require the proponent to lay out for us the argument his/her opponent would make on the same issue.

This will not prevent the proponent from showing how his/her side is superior, nor will it necessarily give us all the information from the other side that we need for a rational decision. But it will at least ensure us that we're listening to someone who has actually considered the possibility that there *is* another side to the argument. And then we may much more reasonably conclude that s/he has arrived at a rational reason for choosing the side s/he supports. I believe that this is *not* the case for far too many who would attempt to persuade us with an empassioned plea. In fact, I can demonstrate conclusively that this is the case in quite a few exchanges here on the halfbakery (I can, but in the interest of harmony, I will not).

My hope is not so much to reform the halfbakery as to encourage rational analysis at large among those who do not engage in it as a matter of course.

So when the salesman says "You really need the extended warranty," ask him to "tell me at least three good reasons why I might *not* want the warranty."

When the political booster from party A says "Vote for my candidate," tell her, "First tell me why so many people are planning to vote for party B's candidate."

When the Jehovah's Witnesses rings the doorbell, tell them, "I will not listen to anything you have to say until you explain to me the benefits of rejecting your argument." (I don't think this will really help you get rid of Jehovah's Witnesses; they're pretty well trained. But it will at least help you practice demanding this minimum standard).

And when aunt Edna says "Have some more potatoes, Johnny," well, then go right ahead and have some more potatoes. No sense being stupid about it, after all.

Someday, we will reach the day when we challenge a demagogue to meet this standard, and we will hear, "Why certainly. I can show you the problems with this argument, but many people do believe that a)...b)...c)...

Try it now and all you'll get is "Huh?"

We deserve better.

beauxeault, May 11 2001


       Yes, it's true that many persuaders, usually the more highly-trained commercial salespeople, are prepared for this. This is a good thing, because it supports the idea that decisions should be made rationally. What I'm suggesting is that we should exert enough pressure to make it a standard assumption that the decision will be a rational one, rather than the status quo, which assumes that any trick that works is valid.
beauxeault, May 11 2001

       Beauxeault, give me three good reasons we should not do this.
globaltourniquet, May 11 2001

       Oh, good one, globaltourniquet.   

       Trouble is most demagogues I've listened to won't give you three *good* reasons their idea may be wrongheaded, they'll intentionally give you three straw men and then proceed to knock them down. I trust my own critical thinking toolkit, such as it is, more than what they're likely to hand me.   

       But I agree that we need to be more aware of opinions presented as facts...hey, there went one now!
Dog Ed, May 12 2001

       Don't buy it if you're broke, ugly, and your mom dresses you funny.
reensure, May 12 2001

       gt, thanks for the question. UB, have a little patience. I don't normally check HB on Friday nights. Did you really think I would post this and not already have considered the arguments against it?   

       1) The "straw man/taking it away defense" is the biggest problem I see. But I don't suggest this as a panacea. If it succeeds, it will perhaps only take us to a place where more demagogues will use this tactic. But at least that means that there will be a more widespread acceptance of the idea that decisions should be made rationally rather than emotionally. That's not perfection, but it's a step in the right direction.   

       2) Political ads would have to devote more time to a specific issue, so it's possible that there would be even more political advertising than there is already, or at least political advertising could become more expensive. In addition to the annoyance of more political ads, the increased expense would increase the influence of cash in politics. But the fact that the ads would actually address the issues instead of emotions would help the rational judgement of the voters to overcome the abuse of influence peddling.   

       3) There are some arguments where there is a real right and a real wrong. Sometimes, those arguing the wrong side are better-trained than those defending the right side. I'd hate to see something like this, which could be used for good, turned around and used for evil. But that's the way of anything useful. Also, even if my proposal were successful, it would not relieve each of us from the responsibility of finding out possibly hidden facts for ourselves. But it *would* make more people aware of that responsibility.   

       In fact, as I thought about this last night, I realized that the real goal here is not to change the behavior of the demagogues, but to raise the awareness of the population at large to the idea that we should each trust our own reason more than someone else's persuasiveness.
beauxeault, May 12 2001

       Beautiful.... I loathe for this utopia already.
quantum_flux, Sep 09 2007


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