Waste not thy time in windy argument

The devil is in the details; I hear that all the time -well, every once in a while, anyway. But the more I think about it, the more worrisome it becomes. Just try to draw a simple map of Canada, for example. The trapezoidal shape of Saskatchewan is easy enough, but there is the ragged shoreline of British Columbia, and the lower part of Alberta that has been partially eaten by it -that’s tricky. And I suppose the next province east of Saskatchewan -Manitoba- is fakeable as it bends to accommodate the whims of Hudson’s Bay. But forget it from there to Newfoundland on the far east coast –it’s impossible, even when you’re trying to trace it from a map.

Maybe Canada is something nobody but a teacher could draw anyway, but there are other things that concern me. Did you ever read that delightful book by Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Hank, a 19th century American engineer is transported to the mythical court of King Arthur in early medieval England, via a blow to his head. That seems perfectly reasonable –I’m not worried about that part- but it’s what he does when he’s there that bothers me. I can only hope that I don’t have to book the trip, because I’m fairly sure I couldn’t figure out how to smelt metal let alone build a bicycle. Or make gunpowder. Or predict an eclipse. Or fix pumps, or…

Well, actually, I’ve forgotten a lot of the stuff that Hank does –most of the story, in fact- but that’s part of the problem, don’t you see? The details trip me up. I can usually remember the bare-bones kinds of things –outlines, shapes, and stuff- but if you were to ask me more, I’d have to make it up. Maybe that’s the way all stories start, but it’s hardly a recommendation for winning an argument.

My anxiety is that someone will check the facts and catch me up. I mean, there goes my credibility, eh? Even when I think I know something, and try to explain it, if someone is listening sufficiently carefully, I become vulnerable. I simply cannot win an argument with people who are paying attention. It didn’t used to be like that, I don’t think -but maybe I just hung out with a different, duller, group. You have to pick your friends carefully, although let’s face it, as you age, the old ones die or dement, and you’re left with whomever stops long enough to listen. Whoever comes to visit.

Ahh, and there’s another detail, again: whether to use the subjective or the objective case of who/whom… Fortunately most people don’t listen -I doubt they even care… They seldom interrogate my parse, but usually just keep repeating theirs as if that should be enough.

I certainly remember a lot of yelling in the old days –a lot of passionate banging on  tables and annoying, disbelieving glares when we affirmed our positions in university pubs. But in those days, the winner was usually the last one shouting. The rest of us, hoarse but unconvinced, merely shrugged and ordered another drink. In truth, I think we accepted that none of us had won. Could win, in fact. There were always the us’s and the thems, each firmly entrenched in disparate and ultimately immutable views –each one convinced of his or her position. Forever.

Now that I’m retired and have had some time to consider it, I have come to accept that this immobility is likely a Law of Nature. That we merely talk at those who have espoused different beliefs. Arguments –attempts at conversion to particular sides- however much fun, are ultimately useless. Pointless. But then I happened across an article in the BBC Future series that gave me hope. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140521-the-best-way-to-win-an-argument?  Maybe others, too, are uncertain of the details, and cling to little more than the framework of the issues for which they have argued so strenuously. Maybe yelling louder at them merely hardens their position.

‘A little over a decade ago Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil from Yale University suggested that in many instances people believe they understand how something works when in fact their understanding is superficial at best. They called this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth”’. And this illusion is easily maintained if it is not questioned. ‘Why would we bother expending the effort to really understand things when we can get by without doing so? The interesting thing is that we manage to hide from ourselves exactly how shallow our understanding is.

‘Research […] on this illusion of understanding shows how the effect might be used to convince others they are wrong. The research team, led by Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, reasoned that the phenomenon might hold as much for political understanding as for things like how toilets work. Perhaps, they figured, people who have strong political opinions would be more open to other viewpoints, if asked to explain exactly how they thought the policy they were advocating would bring about the effects they claimed it would.’ And the study showed that ‘[t]hose who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues.’

Details -my vulnerability again. But it’s not just mine, thank goodness. I guess most of us are lazy. And once we have decided on a point of view –an ideological stand, for example- we pack  ourselves in confirmation biases like the bubble wrap that Amazon uses to protect all that stuff we order online, and every other opinion seems alien. Misguided. Wrong. That which was meant to protect our views, unbeknownst to us, imprisons them. And, if we don’t let them air every so often, can actually ossify them.

Yet, even after reading the article, I’m often still uncomfortable if someone asks me to explain something in greater detail, seeks to investigate how fully I understand the position I am espousing -but isn’t that what discussion is all about? The word apparently derives from the past participle of the Latin verb discutere –to dash to pieces, agitate.

I like that. It leaves some room for the elbows to move. And although the map of Canada that I manage to draw may still look a little strange, maybe I’ll learn where to put Prince Edward Island…

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