Speak Up Against Irrationalists, But Speak Well

11 06 2011

Some say that it is not wise to engage with those who fail to respect reason.

Some say it’s folly to attempt to correct the misinformation spouted by climate change deniers because engaging with them only gives them more exposure, it legitimises their voice and fuels the controversy.

Some say it’s imprudent to argue with persons of faith about the folly of believing in a supreme being responsible for creating a rational universe yet who hides behind a veil of unreason, demanding his followers shun reason in order to to demonstrate their love for him.

Some say pushing back against wildly spurious claims such that legislating to allow gay marriage will entail a slippery slope that will end up permitting polygamy and incest is pointless; just let those extremists continue to tout their positions and further alienate themselves from the reasonable views of the mainstream.

I disagree. We who do respect reason should push back. Vigorously. But we should do so well.

Yes, engaging with extremists and Irrationalists of all flavours does elevate their voice. And engaging with them is almost certainly not going to change their minds. But the Irrationalists often have a loud voice, and their voice is heard by those who are as yet undecided, or those who are too busy living their lives to read up on the details of each issue.

So it’s up to those of us who do respect reason and facts to speak loudly against unreason, not to convince those who have committed to a path of irrationality, but to demonstrate to those who are still open to reason that there are better ways to engage with complex issues, and to change the nature of the discourse to elevate reason to where it deserves to be: a prerequisite for any argument meant to persuade.

But we should argue well. Engaging in ad hominem attacks against those perceived to be irrational, ignorant or stupid does the cause of reason no favours. Remember, when voicing dissent against the Irrationalists, we’re not trying to convert the purveyors of unreason but those who hear their loud rantings.

And we need to maintain the standards of rational argument, first and foremost acknowledging the first rule of thumb of rational discourse: there must be something that can prove us wrong.

If anyone utters a belief or argument and there is no possibility of it being proven wrong, either by logic or evidence, then that belief doesn’t qualify to enter into rational discourse. Such an utterance is little more than an opinion, a subjective attitude, a conspiracy theory, pseudo-science or a expression of faith, none of which belong in rational discourse about serious issues.

But we can also wield this rule of thumb as a weapon against our irrational opponents. If we can encourage more people to acknowledge this rule of thumb of rational discourse, then we can brand those who fail to conform to it as Irrationalists – a new pejorative that ought to enter our discourse to counter the ‘elitist’ and ‘intellectual’ flung about by the Right – and as disqualifying them from rational debate.

This rule of thumb also means not tackling irrational arguments head on – which is surely an exercise in frustration, if not folly – but by undermining irrational arguments as a whole.

And if they accept this rule of thumb, then it’s game on; it’s time to engage in vigorous, rational and respectful debate – and let the best argument win.