Sunday, October 14, 2012

Show Your Work

Recent discussions with theists have reminded me of a frequent discussion I had with my students back when I was a math teacher. After handing back exams, I would always give my students a few minutes to look over their exams, compare with each other, and ask questions about how grades were given out (this is an important part of the exam process as it is the best point in time to learn from your mistakes). Quite often, someone will see that they got the right answer to a question and yet didn't receive full credit. Upon inspecting their exam, I will point out to them that they made 2 (or more) mistakes that just happened to cancel each other out. The fact that they got the right answer in the end was just a stroke of luck. This of course has never been the end of the conversation, they always insist that since they have the right answer they should get full credit. I then tell them that I care more about how they get to the answer than what their answer is. What I am trying to see is that they have mastered the material, making several mistakes does not demonstrate mastery, it demonstrates luck on their part (and possibly that I have done a poor job designing the test). This typically ends the conversations, allowing the student to go back to their friends to tell them what an asshole I am.

When it comes to these discussions with theists, I feel largely the same way I felt then. I care at least as much about how you arrived at your point of view as I care about what that point of view actually is. This is especially important when we disagree on something. You say God is real, I want to know why. Don't just say "trust me, he's real", that won't convince anyone, except a child I guess. Try to explain to me why you think he's real, what makes you think that? Of course if your reason is that you have believed it since you were a child, you might not want to point that out.

This is particularly relevant when you make specific claims. "Miracles happen". Okay great, this is something we can talk about, give me an example or point me to a story I can read, something. If I ask you for an example and all you can say is "there are so many, miracles happen every day" or something like that, you've given me nothing. There's potentially some good conversation here, but not if you dodge every question. If you claim there is a "actually a ton of evidence against evolution", then you should be able to give an example of such evidence, and not just some vague statement about how fruit flies don't evolve, but an actual explanation of what you mean, preferably with some kind of link. If you say that there is a bunch of evidence of alien space ships, then you should provide me with that evidence, not just some vague request that I go look it up. Yes, I would love to look it up, point me in the right direction. I certainly don't want to waste a bunch of time finding information on my own, explaining why I think it is nonsense, just so you can say "that's not the right information" or "yeah that is bogus, but there is actual good evidence out there". Fine, show it to me in the first place.

And if we wind up disagreeing in the end that is fine. I have had plenty of conversations with people where I could understand what their arguments were but disagreed with some of the premises, no big deal, we still have a good conversation. We each learned a bit about the other person's way of thinking, and that alone is a good thing, but that can't happen if we don't properly explain our position.

Why we hold our beliefs is at least as important as what those beliefs actually are.


  1. Replies
    1. That's a really interesting tie in. I had never thought about it like that. I do like hearing about how people arrive at the conclusion they came to. Sometimes, they might have access to more information that I was unaware of, and I can adjust my knowledge. I think when it comes to stuff, in general, we probably all bat .500 since we don't really have time to consider all information for every decision and every stance we have in life. This is why discussions are so valuable I think. It's almost like a shortcut to knowledge, given that they present you with a good case, or vice versa.

    2. yeah, to me hearing how and why people come to the conclusions they do is sorta the whole point of the conversation. It's fun to see the reasoning people use about things, and that is the fastest way to find out I am wrong about things.

      I don't think I agree with the 50% thing. We are always missing some information, and what we have available we typically can't rationally process all of it. However, I think we do pretty well with the data we have. Our brains do a lot of calculating that we aren't really aware of, it is below the surface, so our instincts are a result of that, and I think in general we should trust our instincts. Of course the problem is when a mistake is made there, it is hard to fix since it is impossible to check the work so to speak. We can't see how we arrived at the conclusion so we can't find the spot where a mistake was made.

    3. The 50% comment was more of an arbitrary number. I just think there are a ton of topics, for example out there that I'm not even aware of, if I was asked about I'd probably make a guess but would be wrong. I think you at least get where I'm coming from.

  2. Great post. I had a debate recently with a Jehovah's Witness where I essentially kept asking him to show his work (provide me with the background of his beliefs), but instead he would avoid the questions and just keep attacking, and he even criticized me for not doing the research. In my head I was thinking the same thing, that he had the obligation to support his position then and there with at least a link, if not an explanation. But he wouldn't. For that reason, and a couple others, like ad hominin attacks and an obvious lack of consideration of my rebuttals, I decided that it was best to end the debate with him.

    1. That is the worst. I hate when they tell you to do your research, and you are like "I'm trying, give me a reference!"


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