Saturday, January 02, 2010

Hierarchies of debate

I've just read an interesting post by a guy called Daniel Loxton on James Randi's accidental endorsement of pseudoscience.

I agree with Loxton that only informed debate is useful in scientific matters. But I think his hierarchy of debate as written is a bit too close to an argument from authority. I'd phrase it slightly differently...

1) If someone has clearly done less reading up on the subject than me (e.g. someone saying that evolution cannot add new information, which I know from studying information theory is complete mince), I will vocally disagree with them.

2) If someone has clearly done more reading than me (e.g. they're a Professor of Atmospheric Dynamics at a reputable uni), I will quietly challenge them in the hope that they'll help me improve my understanding. If they appear unable to do so then I'll jump to step #4.

3) If someone appears to have roughly the same level of knowledge as me, I'll aim to trade information with them via debate until we can reach a consensus.

4) If I can't judge whether someone is more or less competent than me, I'll go away and read basic science textbooks until I can judge. (Or I'll shut up. But I don't like shutting up.)

I'm currently at step #4 with my dad on climate change. He's normally more scientifically literate than me, but he's also an AGW skeptic, which seems to go against the consensus. I think it's likely he's just been getting information from dodgy third-hand sources, but I've been getting my information at third hand as well so I can't really protest about that. Yet. I'm working my way through the IPCC report as we speak, and looking up references where possible.

I'm at step #2 with my actuarial science course notes. I have a suspicion that basically the entire financial economics community is taking an approach of "these are the kind of mathematical models we know how to use, therefore we'll assume finance really behaves like that". But I need to do a lot more background reading and questioning, in a state of humility, before I can say for sure.

I consider myself to be at step #1 with the "does God exist" debate, but only because the majority of theists seem to be stuck at step #4 (without the shutting up part). There are some with better knowledge than me, but they tend to be like Henry Neufeld, who freely admits that he believes in God on essentially non-rational grounds.

What hierarchies do you guys use?

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