The Lost Art of Persuasion

This post is mostly just a lament that occurred to me as I was reading James Joyner’s post on “Winning the Healthcare Debate”. If what I see on the news and what I’ve experienced in the blogosphere are any indication, persuasion is a lost art. Contradiction is equated with refutation. Even learned academics are unwilling or unable to support their cases with evidence and reason and prefer to argue the negative even when they’re the advocates (a fallacy known as “burden of proof”), failing to support their own case and simply arguing against their interlocutors.

“Clearing the field”, eliminating debate by dominating the floor, often in an offensive manner, is the order of the day.

An ad hominem argument isn’t merely an insult; it’s any argument in which the opponent is confronted rather than the opponent’s argument.

It may be remarkable to some but I keep an open mind. I’m ready to listen to the arguments of those who disagree with me, particularly when they’re presented in a non-agonistic fashion. At least I try to. I am not a post-modern. I’ll listen to any reasonable argument. I believe that out of the mouths of babes may come wisdom. Or it may not.

I can be persuaded but I can’t be browbeaten.

4 comments… add one
  • sam Link

    Yeah, I recall reading someone who said, “Just because you’ve silenced someone doesn’t mean you’ve presuaded him.”

  • steve Link

    I remain bothered by those who present anecdotes as evidence or quoting their favorite pundit without verifying claims. I guess I pretty much believe 95% of the population is innumerate, if that is a word.


  • Yes, innumerate is a very good word. Not only is it a word but I think the condition it describes is widespread and endemic in the U. S. Senate.

    I find it somewhat distressing that so many people seem to have no feel for numbers. That’s something a little different than simple innumeracy. Being innumerate means that you don’t really know the difference between a million and a billion. No feel for numbers means that you don’t realize that the sum you’re adding up will amount to billions rather than millions.

  • Drew Link

    I obviously understand the point being made here. But let me weigh in with not an opposing, but perhaps an augmenting point of view.

    Who could argue with Dave’s “I can be persuaded but I can’t be browbeaten.” And who would argue that ad hominem is a good thing?

    However, polite, highbrow argumentation/pursuasion in the public realm can at times be like showing up at a gunfight with a knife. And we have to ask ourselves, do we want to prevail, or just feel good about our performance?

    Further, let us not mistake purported “facts,” “studies” or authority with reality, or a lifetime of experience and wisdom that might be at odds with the “facts” or conventional wisdom. So much of what masquerades as “fact” is flawed, as are ill-conceived or intentionally biased studies. Not to pick on Alex Knapp, but does anyone really think that a third of all Republicans are “birthers” just because some poll was taken??

    Some of you may know that I am in the private equity investment business. You should see our investment decision meetings; they are not for the faint of heart. Far from models of quiet Socratic debate, they are rather raucus. How can this be? We have facts and third party diligence and studies and…………….

    We also have the wisdom, experience and scars of decades of investing. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. (Beware the cock-sure, study waiving investor.) And when you reach a certain age and experience and level of expertise, you just don’t care about some piece of paper that purports to refute what you have lived and experienced for years. You know sound analysis when you hear it…….and, uh, not so much.

    There is this all important thing called judgment in an imperfect information world. And this is where the raucus nature comes in. Nobody really knows the “truth” in these problematic matters. So sometimes argumentation is designed to be nothing more than prodding to see how strongly held the conviction of an opposing view is. Sometimes its deliberately and stridently putting oneself out there on what you know is a tenuous position just to see if you get beaten up. That takes a strong ego, but you’ve got to do it sometimes. But its all part of trying to get to the best possible dissection of an issue, and hopefully the best collective judgment when there is no text book to go to.

    Do not be confused. The former engineer in me predisposes me to logic and fact. So this is not a defense of – if you will – George Carlen’s “hey, I’m not full… oh, yeah YOU’RE full of shit!” Or screaming at town hall meeting’s or intentional dissemination of crappy misinformation etc.

    But on these forums, or in the public debate, a little mixing it up isn’t necessarily a bad or impolite thing. It tests the conviction of the commentor. And in addition, “facts” and studies are weaker reads to lean on that many suspect, and shouldn’t be viewed as argument show stoppers. Real world examples and experience matter as much, if not more, and should be heard and incorporated into the debate.

    IMHO that is…….

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