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Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”*…

Through reading, champion debater Bo Sen learned that disagreement can be a source of good, not ill, even in our polarized age.

Nowadays, disagreement is out of fashion. It is seen as the root of our personal and political troubles. Debate, in making a sport out of argument, seems at once a trivial pursuit and a serious impediment to the kinds of conversation we want to cultivate. But in my first book, Good Arguments, I propose that the opposite is true. Students may train to win every disagreement, but they soon learn that this is impossible. Even the best lose most of the competitions they attend. What one can do is disagree better—be more convincing and tenacious, and argue in a manner that keeps others willing to come back for another round. In the end, the prize for all that training and effort is a good conversation…

He shares several recommendations, e.g…

Thinking in an Emergency, by Elaine Scarry

Scarry, one of my English professors at Harvard, is the rare scholar who can change how you move through the world. She has made a career of bringing language to the ineffable ends of human experience: pain and beauty. In Thinking in an Emergency, she places deliberation at the core of a democratic response to emergencies including natural disasters and nuclear war. Scarry argues that debate, both real-time and prospective, need not hinder action and can instead secure the resolve and coordination needed for rapid response. She warns against leaders who invoke catastrophes to demand that their populations stop thinking. In this era of calamities, natural and man-made, Scarry’s wisdom is essential: “Whatever happens, keep talking.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Malcolm X learned to debate as a 20-something in what was then called Norfolk Prison Colony, a state prison founded on reformist ideals that fielded debate teams against local colleges such as Boston University. In his memoir, X describes the experience of finding one’s voice and communing with an audience as a revelation: “I will tell you that, right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been … once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.” For most people, debate is a pastime of school and university years. This memoir shows that one can make a career and a life from its lessons in fierce, courageous, and resolute disagreement.

When Should Law Forgive?, by Martha Minow

One question I struggle with in Good Arguments is when we should stop debating. Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School, provides here a model of humane consideration on the limits of the adversarial ethic. Hers is an argument for accommodating forgiveness—the “letting go of justified grievances”—in the legal system. She builds the book as one would a spacious house, each area of the law—juvenile justice, debt, amnesties and pardons—a separate chapter in which readers are invited to stay and reflect awhile. Martha Nussbaum is illuminating on related topics in her critique of anger in Anger and Forgiveness, which elicited rebuttal from Myisha Cherry in The Case for Rage, an argument for the emotion’s usefulness in conditions of resistance. The need to balance dispute and conciliation, accountability and grace, cannot be transcended, only better managed.

Seven more recommendations at “The Books That Taught a Debate Champion How to Argue,” from @helloboseo in @TheAtlantic.

* Desmond Tutu


As we put the civil back into civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Roman Catholic Church announced, via a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“index of prohibited books”), which was originally instituted in 1557. The communique stated that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties. So… read on.

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564)


“Based on his liberal use of the semicolon, I just assumed this date would go well”*…

Mary Norris (“The Comma Queen“) appreciates Cecelia Watson‘s appreciation of a much-maligned mark, Semicolon

… Watson, a historian and philosopher of science and a teacher of writing and the humanities—in other words, a Renaissance woman—gives us a deceptively playful-looking book that turns out to be a scholarly treatise on a sophisticated device that has contributed eloquence and mystery to Western civilization.

The semicolon itself was a Renaissance invention. It first appeared in 1494, in a book published in Venice by Aldus Manutius. “De Aetna,” Watson explains, was “an essay, written in dialogue form,” about climbing Mt. Etna. Its author, Pietro Bembo, is best known today not for his book but for the typeface, designed by Francesco Griffo, in which the first semicolon was displayed: Bembo. The mark was a hybrid between a comma and a colon, and its purpose was to prolong a pause or create a more distinct separation between parts of a sentence. In her delightful history, Watson brings the Bembo semicolon alive, describing “its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it.” Designers, she explains, have since given the mark a “relaxed and fuzzy” look (Poliphilus), rendered it “aggressive” (Garamond), and otherwise adapted it for the modern age: “Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party.”

The problem with the semicolon is not how it looks but what it does and how that has changed over time. In the old days, punctuation simply indicated a pause. Comma, colon: semicolon; period. Eventually, grammarians and copy editors came along and made themselves indispensable by punctuating (“pointing”) a writer’s prose “to delineate clauses properly, such that punctuation served syntax.” That is, commas, semicolons, and colons were plugged into a sentence in order to highlight, subordinate, or otherwise conduct its elements, connecting them syntactically. One of the rules is that, unless you are composing a list, a semicolon is supposed to be followed by a complete clause, capable of standing on its own. The semicolon can take the place of a conjunction, like “and” or “but,” but it should not be used in addition to it. This is what got circled in red in my attempts at scholarly criticism in graduate school. Sentence length has something to do with it—a long, complex sentence may benefit from a clarifying semicolon—but if a sentence scans without a semicolon it’s best to leave it alone.

Watson has been keeping an eye out for effective semicolons for years. She calculates that there are four-thousand-odd semicolons in “Moby-Dick,” or “one for every 52 words.” Clumsy as nineteenth-century punctuation may seem to a modern reader, Melville’s semicolons, she writes, act like “sturdy little nails,” holding his wide-ranging narrative together….

Eminently worth reading in full: “Sympathy for the Semicolon,” on @ceceliawatson from @MaryNorrisTNY.

Sort of apposite (and completely entertaining/enlightening): “Naming the Unnamed: On the Many Uses of the Letter X.”

(Image above: source)

* Raven Leilani, Luster


As we punctuate punctiliously, we might recall that it was on this date in 1990 that CBS aired the final episode of Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom series, Newhart, in which he co-starred with Mary Fran through a 184 episode run that had started in 1982. Newhart had, of course, had a huge hit with his first series, The Bob Newhart Show, in which he co-starred with Suzanne Pleshette.

Newhart‘s ending, its final scene, is often cited as the best finale in sit-com history.

“In the sphere of thought, absurdity and perversity remain the masters of this world, and their dominion is suspended only for brief periods”*…

From a (somewhat sarcastic) 1896 essay (“The Art of Controversy”) by that gloomiest of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, advice that (sadly) feels as appropriate today as it surely was then…

1. Carry your opponent’s proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it. The more general your opponent’s statement becomes, the more objections you can find against it. The more restricted and narrow his or her propositions remain, the easier they are to defend by him or her.

2. Use different meanings of your opponent’s words to refute his or her argument.

3. Ignore your opponent’s proposition, which was intended to refer to a particular thing. Rather, understand it in some quite different sense, and then refute it. Attack something different than that which was asserted.

The first three of “Schopenhauer’s 38 Stratagems, or 38 Ways to Win an Argument.” Via @TheBrowser.

[Image above: source]

* Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Art of Controversy


As we celebrate sophistry, we might recall that it was on this date (or near; scholars disagree) in 325 that Roman Emperor Constantine I convened a gathering in which all of Scopenhauer’s tricks were surely employed: the First Council of Nicaea. An ecumenical council, it was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all Christendom. Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Nicene Creed, mandating uniform observance of the date of Easter, and the promulgation of early canon law.

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea holding the Nicene Creed


“Your job as a scientist is to figure out how you’re fooling yourself”*…

Larger version here

And like scientists, so all of us…

Science has shown that we tend to make all sorts of mental mistakes, called “cognitive biases”, that can affect both our thinking and actions. These biases can lead to us extrapolating information from the wrong sources, seeking to confirm existing beliefs, or failing to remember events the way they actually happened!

To be sure, this is all part of being human—but such cognitive biases can also have a profound effect on our endeavors, investments, and life in general.

Humans have a tendency to think in particular ways that can lead to systematic deviations from making rational judgments.

These tendencies usually arise from:

• Information processing shortcuts

• The limited processing ability of the brain

• Emotional and moral motivations

• Distortions in storing and retrieving memories

• Social influence

Cognitive biases have been studied for decades by academics in the fields of cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics, but they are especially relevant in today’s information-packed world. They influence the way we think and act, and such irrational mental shortcuts can lead to all kinds of problems in entrepreneurship, investing, or management.

Here are five examples of how these types of biases can affect people in the business world:

1. Familiarity Bias: An investor puts her money in “what she knows”, rather than seeking the obvious benefits from portfolio diversification. Just because a certain type of industry or security is familiar doesn’t make it the logical selection.

2. Self-Attribution Bias: An entrepreneur overly attributes his company’s success to himself, rather than other factors (team, luck, industry trends). When things go bad, he blames these external factors for derailing his progress.

3. Anchoring Bias: An employee in a salary negotiation is too dependent on the first number mentioned in the negotiations, rather than rationally examining a range of options.

4. Survivorship Bias: Entrepreneurship looks easy, because there are so many successful entrepreneurs out there. However, this is a cognitive bias: the successful entrepreneurs are the ones still around, while the millions who failed went and did other things.

5. Gambler’s Fallacy: A venture capitalist sees a portfolio company rise and rise in value after its IPO, far behind what he initially thought possible. Instead of holding on to a winner and rationally evaluating the possibility that appreciation could still continue, he dumps the stock to lock in the existing gains.

An aid to thinking about thinking: “Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic.” From DesignHacks.co via Visual Capitalist.

And for a fascinating look of cognitive bias’ equally dangerous cousin, innumeracy, see here.

* Saul Perlmutter, astrophysicist, Nobel laureate


As we cogitate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that “The Carrington Event” began. Lasting two days, it was the largest solar storm on record: a large solar flare (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) that affected many of the (relatively few) electronics and telegraph lines on Earth.

A solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days. See here for more detail on what such a storm might entail.

Sunspots of 1 September 1859, as sketched by R.C. Carrington. A and B mark the initial positions of an intensely bright event, which moved over the course of five minutes to C and D before disappearing.

“One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity”*…

But, as the tale of the disastrous diet demonstrates, that instruction needs to start early and go deep…

While on vacation, Marcial Conte, the Brazilian publisher of my first book, met a woman who asked about his work. Upon learning he was responsible for A Mentira do Glutén: E Outros Mitos Sobre O Que Voce Comê (The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat), she lit up.

Her husband, she said, had followed my revolutionary diet protocol and changed his life. Pounds melted away. Myriad health problems resolved themselves.“ She told me to thank you for saving her husband’s life with the ‘UNpacked Diet,’” Conte grinned at me. “Incredible, no? The only change they made was keeping aluminum foil.”

Incredible, indeed. The diet was satire, invented by me, and it came at the end of a book dedicated to exposing pseudoscientific nutrition claims. For the centerpiece of the faux diet, I used just such a claim: that the cause of all modern ailments was food packaging. By “unpacking” your food — that is, by refusing to eat food that had come in contact with plastic, styrofoam, or aluminum foil — I pretended to promise readers a magical panacea for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, as well as effortless weight loss.

The satire should have been clear. Every chapter was packed with warnings about precisely the kinds of claims made in the diet, such as:

• Beware of panaceas… like a diet that promises miraculous weight loss and a solution to every chronic illness.

• Distrust the promise of secret knowledge hidden by conspiracies… like the diet that “they” don’t want you to know about.

• Don’t trust individual anecdotes… like the glowing testimonials I included at the end of the invented diet. (I took them from other pseudoscientific diet books.)

• Stay alert for myths and fallacies such as the “appeal to antiquity”… the idea that our ancestors lived in a dietary paradise and that modern technology is uniquely evil and dangerous.

• Watch out for grains of scientific truth turned into alarmist falsehoods… like the cherry-picked scientific studies that filled the UNpacked Diet’s footnotes.

Each deceptive tactic in the UNpacked Diet had been scrupulously debunked in the chapters that preceded it. Not only that, but after the diet there was another section called the “UNpacked Diet, UNpacked,” in which I went through each of the deceptive tactics and explained why I chose it. How could this couple have taken it seriously, much less followed it? Even if they had missed the final section, their reaction to the UNpacked Diet should have been skepticism and disbelief, not enthusiasm.

I would have been more shocked at Conte’s story if I hadn’t already heard from others who had likewise tried the diet. Readers have emailed asking where they can buy the “UNpacked Diet-approved unbleached coffee filters” that I dreamed up as part of the satire, or with follow-up questions about what’s permissible within the framework of the “diet.” In just a few pages, those powerful rhetorical techniques overcame chapter after chapter of carefully crafted guidance on how to resist them.

My current approach is to present my students with what you’ve just read: transparency about my own thought process. Misinformation exploits the (reasonable!) suspicion that authority figures are hiding something, coming up with secret ways to “nudge” us in certain directions or manipulating us with… well, with science communication techniques. Transparency about how we approach the communication of science — or the communication of a lot of things — creates trust, which is essential to effective persuasion. I’ve found that students report increased trust and a sense that I’m an honest broker of information when I take the transparency approach.

At the same time, knowing that some people believe in the healing power of my satirical diet immediately after reading almost 200 pages on why they shouldn’t has left me deeply shaken. Changing how we communicate science can help, but it’s a Band-Aid solution. A real solution means changing education so books like mine are obsolete.

By the time children finish high school, they should be intimately familiar with manipulative rhetorical techniques, common fallacies, and their own susceptibility to persuasive anecdotes. Alongside hours of studying the Krebs cycle and mitochondria, there should be hours allotted to how to distinguish scientific reasoning from pseudoscientific nonsense. From vaccines to climate change, misinformation poses an existential threat when it inhibits our collective decision-making ability. The time has come to start treating it that way.

How exposure to misinformation inoculation sometimes makes things worse– and how to do better: “They Swore by the Diet I Created — but I Completely Made It Up,” from Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz), via the always-illuminating @DenseDiscovery.

* “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.” – Bertrand Russell


As we think critically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day!

Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël


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