2013-07-20

Is It Too Much To Ask?

Ladies and gentlemen, good Stationary Waves readers, is it too much to ask that you reason and debate from a standpoint of knowledge rather than guess-work?

I do understand that it is virtually impossible to develop a knowledge base so broad and so deep that it enables you to argue effectively on any subject about which you may wish to engage. However, numbers are not metaphors for things of approximate size. If you wish to make a point using numbers, it should not be considered an unreasonable request that you actually make sure your numbers are real.

Now, I'm not talking about calculation mistakes. Everybody makes those from time to time. If we agree that we should all argue patiently, openly, and with cool heads, then we can all agree not to rhetorically lynch someone who reasons in error from a bad calculation. (Of course, he or she who makes a calculation error also has the responsibility to revise his or her priors in light of the truth.)

No, I'm talking about simple points of fact. Statistics are one example: "95% of people are _______" would be the classic case, although it is certainly not the only case. Other examples might be the source of a quotation, the verbatim content of that quotation, the date and/or time of a historical event, and in short anything that is an objective fact.

In the old days, perhaps there was sufficient reason to argue purely from memory. You can imagine the stereotypical British gentlemen dressed in African safari attire and holding a magnifying glass over a globe, when suddenly a third mutual friend walks in.

"Wallace!" the Colonel exclaims, "I'm glad you're here! Can you settle a bet for us? Mr. Tyler here asserts that the Euphrates terminates at the Persian Gulf, while I maintain that he rather has in mind the Tigris."

"Indeed," says Mr. Tyler, "I spent no less than four months raising a herd of camel just outside of Baghdad and laid my own two eyes on that river."

Wallace chuckes, "I say, my good fellows, what Colonel says of Mr. Tyler is entirely true. He is, in point of fact, thinking of the Tigris." To this, the Colonel snaps his fingers triumphantly and gives Mr. Tyler a pat on the back so hefty that it dislodges Tyler's monacle from its ocular perch. "However, Colonel, it is meanwhile also true that the Euphrates terminates at the Persian Gulf. It seems to me that you are both rather confused." And so declaring, Wallace lets forth a modest chortle that quickly descends into a rowdy fit of coughing and wheezing that slowly winds down into a soft and incoherent utterance whose only intelligible content is, "...holy heavens... that blasted chimney of yours colonel... no more than sixpence, you know..."

Today, however, we are no longer reliant on our friends to settle bets, and few of us behave as gentlemen. On the other hand, what we do have is instant access to virtually ever fact known to mankind in the form of a web search. In seconds, you will have facts at your fingertips that are worth infinitely more than a guess.

Get with the 21st Century now that we are more than a decade into it. If you want to debate with your fellows, have at it. But please do "your research," considering that "your research" consists of nothing more than a few seconds of superficial scanning.