Tag Archives: argument

Why You Can’t Win

Sound arguments can’t compete with good feelings. 

Good feelings are stronger motivators than sound arguments.


These days politics requires incessant posturing to such a level of precision that no one can assume an opponent has said anything remotely correct about any detail of policy. Only barbed messages of radical certainty, please.

Ideology and language: Why a gun columnist was fired

[Updated 8:51 p.m., Jan. 6]

Today’s (Sunday, Jan. 5) New York Times reports:

BARRY, Ill. — The byline of Dick Metcalf, one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists, has gone missing…. 

In late October, Mr. Metcalf wrote a column that the magazine titled “Let’s Talk Limits,” which debated gun laws. “The fact is,” wrote Mr. Metcalf, who has taught history at Cornell and Yale, “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”  

“Let’s Talk Limits” had a subtitle not mentioned in the Times article, and it could have been inflammatory enough to draw ire from Second Amendment advocates. The subtitle: “Do certain firearms regulations really constitute infringement?”

With that and what others have called warmed-over anti-gun arguments, Metcalf’s column in Guns & Ammo magazine was ended.

Most online articles about the incident (many of which appeared in November) have been either mainstream reportage or gun-rights outrage. I found one article that actually took the time to refute Metcalf’s premises, which was A.W.R. Hawkins’ explanation at Breitbart.com.

At the business level, the reason for Metcalf’s firing should not have surprised anyone: “two major gun manufacturers” threatened to pull advertising, the Times reported. 

At the idea level, however, something else is going on, as illustrated in this paragraph from the Times article:

“We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment,” said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. “The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” 

There you have it, the paradigm of all ideologues. It’s only applied to one side of one issue, but that’s actually perfect, because its form is the only universally shared ideological belief in our time, regardless of position or point of view.

This ideological belief, or perhaps meta-belief, says, “Things are so bad, we are so threatened, we cannot grant any rational points to the other side.”

I will quickly concede some circumstances call for uncompromising, absolutist, inflexible positions, but do you not see that unwillingness to cede “some rational points” in every debate these days, about every social, political, or cultural issue?

So Venola says, “The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” I wonder how many people reacted to that sentence as if fingernails were scraping down a chalkboard.

However, I think a person can hold a very strong, uncompromising belief without being ideological about it, without ever ignoring “rational points” on the other side.

That’s possible because, as Dr. Thomas Sowell once said, it’s not enough to identify a problem. Identifying a problem is the easy part. A person must also determine whether a solution is possible.

You’re stuck on an island with a friend, the Sowell argument goes, and your friend has acute appendicitis. Your only tool is a wooden spoon. The available tool, in this circumstance, can’t fix the problem. The problem is real and serious — that appendix is going to burst, and your friend faces a certain, painful death. But what is a wooden spoon going to accomplish? A fast-track to rupturing? Sometimes we just don’t have what we need, and maybe our emotional, non-rational populace just can’t accept unsolvable problems.

Maybe that’s the deal with gun rights in our society — as Hawkins points out, the right to self-defense is a natural right that’s too basic to violate. Some analogies, like one Metcalf used about automobile licenses, fail because transportation by car is neither a natural right nor protected in the Constitution. We might just always have problems with guns, but maybe the alternative — violating the natural right to self-defense — is just too risky and problematic.

How risky and problematic? Well, let’s put it this way. If drug cartels and gangs can smuggle heavy-duty weaponry into the United States, I want the option of having heavy-duty weaponry in my home. I have three children. If I need to defend my home, I won’t ask Jimmy Carter to drop by for a chat with gang members and a probe of their childhoods. I’m not expecting the cops to be quick enough, either.

For that matter, consider the general failure of prohibitions. Drug laws haven’t kept drugs away — why does anyone think gun laws will keep guns away? Abortion is legal, and one of the arguments for keeping it legal is that women will get abortions regardless of the procedure’s legality, so our society ought to give them presumably clean, safe, sanitary places for abortions (despite this sicko’s once-legal clinic) instead of “back-alley” abortions.

So I’m not convinced that even the most restrictive gun laws in the world would keep guns away from the outlaws. Whether the argument seems tired and over-used or not, I don’t think law-abiding citizens win in a society of gun restrictions. (A new study out of Quinnipiac University offers interesting information along these lines.)

But I’m also willing to cede “some rational points,” and I hope that willingness never goes away. I want to be able to understand and even feel the other person’s point of view, even if I can’t give it rational assent.

But any understanding of Metcalf’s point of view was lost in anger and outrage. Following the offending column, the Times reports:

The backlash was swift, and fierce. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Death threats poured in by email. His television program was pulled from the air.

Just days after the column appeared, Mr. Metcalf said, his editor called to tell him that two major gun manufacturers had said “in no uncertain terms” that they could no longer do business with InterMedia Outdoors, the company that publishes Guns & Ammo and co-produces his TV show, if he continued to work there.

Director Ridley Scott and a question: What is justified, rational belief?

Director Ridley Scott’s new movie Prometheus is due June 8.

A fairly obvious cultural subtext emerges from this excerpt in today’s New York Times on Scott and Prometheus.

On the one hand, he said, he was inspired by the current quest to look for life beyond Earth, under the sands of Mars and in the oceans beneath the ice covering Jupiter’s moon Europa.

“I think, wow, this is a pretty useful basis for my film,” Mr. Scott recalled.

At the other end of the credibility scale is the pop archaeologist Erich von Daniken, who argued in books like his 1968 “Chariots of the Gods” that there was archaeological evidence in the form of things like the Nazca lines in Peru that we had received visitors from outer space. His claims gained no traction among professional archaeologists, but, Mr. Scott said, “to me it all made sense.”

In news conferences and in conversation Mr. Scott has evinced sympathy for the notion — popular in some circles, including the Vatican — that it is almost “mathematically impossible” for life on Earth to have gotten to where it is today without help.

“It is so enormously irrational that we can do this,” he went on, referring to our conversation — “two specs of atoms on a carbon ball.”

“Who pushed it along?” he asked. Have we been previsited by gods or aliens? “The fact that they’d be at least a billion years ahead of us in technology is daunting, and one might use the word God or gods or engineers of life in space.”

And would we want to meet them again? Mr. Scott’s countryman the cosmologist Stephen Hawking has suggested that we should be careful Out There. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” Dr. Hawking said.

Mr. Scott agreed: “Hopefully they won’t visit.”

Let us consider: A belief that makes sense to an individual, yet that belief doesn’t gain the support of experts. Irrational? Alternative? Plausible? Crazy?


Tim Keller argued off point and slipped toward ad hominem

I thought I would let some time go by before I picked up the following matter.

I replied to a Tim Keller blog post back on April 10. My reply, which can almost stand without reference to the original post, was:

What about text criticism? Sure, the Bible has always had its critics, but consider how the impact of the critics has changed. The plain language of the Bible includes discrepencies, or at least what appears to be discrepencies, about basic factual information. People are more likely to believe higher-order matters like doctrine and theology when the lower-order matters like basic facts are clear and sound. And now, many middle-class kids have taken university courses like Intro to the New Testament, so they are faced with lower-order difficulties that make higher-order propositions harder to believe. My full argument is here: https://liturgical.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/why-factual-discrepencies-in-the-bible-are-a-barrier-to-faith-lower-order-and-higher-order-concerns/ All the best, Colin

This argument may or may not be valid, reasonable, or crazy.

But notice how Keller, in his reply, did not actually address the argument.

Rather, he took on completely different issues that were not warranted by either my comment or the blog post to which I linked. Keller’s reply:

Colin — Ross Douthat does not mention text criticism as a big issue nor would I. Text criticism of the Bible actually supports confidence in it, if taken as a whole. Bart Ehrman, yes, claims that text criticism undermines out trust in the Bible, but his own teacher–Dr Bruce Metztger of Princeton, the leading text critic in the world–always taught the opposite, namely, that text criticism shows we can have more confidence in the Bible than any other ancient text. That is, we have far more confidence that we have the actual words of the original words of the Bible than we do that we have the original words of Plato, Aristotle, or Homer, etc. Bart Ehrman’s view of text criticism is a minority view among text critics. If you are going to recommend his views as the basis for making faith and life choices, you should at least read a couple of books by Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor.

Notice that Keller argues against (1) liberal interpretations of the data from text criticism and (2) Bart Ehrman. He also says (3) if Bruce Metzger was Ehrman’s mentor, I should read Metzger. Then, (4) he follows with a suggestion that I use Bart Ehrman as a “basis for making faith and life choices.”

However, what was my argument? It was actually a bundle of arguments. My arguments, summarized in the comment and given more space in the link that appeared in the comment, were (1) lower-order concerns influence beliefs about higher-order concerns, and (2) Ehrman-like critiques of the New Testament are being used in many university classes today (critiques that focus on factual discrepencies in Scriptural records), and (3) students might be persuaded by Ehrman-like views of lower-order concerns to reject Christianity’s higher-order concerns.

I did not argue for liberal interpretations of the data from text criticism, nor did I argue for Bart Ehrman in general, nor did I argue that Ehrman’s take on text criticism is accurate.

I argued that Ehrman’s take might be influential. I also used Ehrman’s work as an example of what might be taught in many universities.

I did not recommend Ehrman’s views as a basis for “making faith and life choices,” period. (Read my blog post again here, or scroll back up to see my original comment on Keller’s blog.)

I have certainly used some of Ehrman’s writings, in previous posts, to wrestle with issues of both apologetics and personal devotional use of the Bible. But that’s different from making Ehrman a “basis” for “faith and life choices.”

In fact, in my post that I linked to from the comment, I wrote something that Ehrman emphatically disagrees with: “I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed.”

So Keller’s reply was essentially an ad hominem attack, taking the focus off my points and placing the emphasis on me. It’s a dishonest argumentative move, and it certainly doesn’t have a drop Christianity in it.

Keller simply did not address my argument. I’m confused and distressed because Keller is held up by many as one of evangelicalism’s sharpest minds.

My fear (not an argument, but a fear) is that people will do with Keller the same thing that they do with so many political, religious, and media figures: make him into an infallible source, above any critique.

Is all this too much for an exchange over a blog post? No. Because our names and our discussion are now (and nearly forever) searchable and findable on the Internet.

Furthermore, when a highly regarded public figure makes a strong reply, many people do not realize that the reply is off-topic because they are already enamored with the public figure. Think of debates between political candidates, when every supporter believes his or her candidate won.

What do the words “truth” and “accuracy” and “intellectual honesty” mean to you?