Black Tools

Making Conclusions

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 43, no. 5, pp. 11--12, September/October 1999.)

Facts are discovered and conclusions are drawn. A fact is a fact is a fact. This is what most people believe, having been taught so at school.

Ludwik Fleck made it very clear that his view is different in his 1935 book The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact: Reality is so complex that it is impossible to grasp it completely, and to describe reality, you must always choose what is important to you.

This choice is never rational, but it is not arbitrary either: It depends on your values, which you acquire from your scientific community and from the societies you live in during your school time and professional training. The choice determines which facts you will see, and also how you will see them. This is why a fact is always a made thing rather than a discovered one, as the word itself expresses: «fact» is derived from the Latin «factio,» which means «a making.»

Fleck's views were dire news for the scientific community, who had by then almost successfully managed to oust the church as the sole purveyor of absolute truth. Other philosophers, most notably Thomas Kuhn, Wolfgang Pauli, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Yehuda Elkana, strengthened the case against absolute scientific truth and pointed out that even scientific progress is possible only if the scientific world view coexists with other, conflicting world views with which it exchanges ideas, concepts, and, most important, values. Like Fleck, all of these philosophers started their careers as scientists. After all, you must get behind somebody before you can stab them in the back.

The insight that even scientific truth is in the eye of the beholder is almost directly applicable to the task of winning a dispute irrespective of who is in the right, which is the topic of my columns. As facts are created rather than discovered, conclusions can be made rather than drawn. By shifting the point of view slightly, by interpreting the opponent's concepts a bit differently, or by including something the opponent has almost but not quite said, one can make almost any conclusion.

Two tricks use this technique: Trick 20, called «The Do-it-Yourself Conclusion,» is to use the technique for underpinning your own position, while Trick 24, «Make Undesired Conclusions,» is to use it for trashing the opponent's view by deriving something from it that is untrue or unacceptable in the audience's view.

You can take do three things against these tricks: Explain what you actually meant to say, show where your opponent's argument has gone awry, or perform a similar trick in return.

Trick 24 is rather effective because it lets the opponent's view appear in a bad light. It is even more effective to let the opponent queer the pitch for himself. Just as any statement may be true within sufficiently narrow limits, any statement is also false if exaggerated.

Since most people tend to exaggerate if provoked, it is easy to make them undermine their own position by repeatedly contradicting them and arguing with them. «Provoking Exaggerations» is the name of this 23rd trick, and the best countermeasure against it is to not let anyone provoke you into exaggerating.

A related trick is number 27, «Pressing on Weak Spots.» If your opponent unexpectedly gets angry during a dispute, you should pursue the present line of thought, not only because it weakens your opponent if he gets angry, but also because you have apparently found a weak spot. Unkindly enough, many teachers and professors use Trick 27 in oral exams! If you know a person who is likely to use this trick, you must either keep a straight face all the time, or you must show him more exemptions than he can possibly assimilate.

The remaining tricks 21, 22, 25, and 26 are less personal because they deal mainly with the proposition and not with the proposer. The most brilliant trick is to «Turn the Tables,» number 26: You use your opponent's argument against her:

«He's a child, so we should handle the case with leniency.»

«Precisely because he is a child, we must be unyielding, or his bad habits will harden.»

You can normally avert this attack by giving a better argument for your position---if you have one, that is.

To refute general statements, it is normally enough to give «One Concrete Counterexample» (Trick 25). Like the philosophers I mentioned, I don't believe in generally, absolutely valid statements. There are, however, statements that can reasonably be thought of as true with respect to the discussion at hand or the decision that must be made.

To give a strange but brief example, the citizens of a village might ask government to employ a full-time exorcist. The answer will, of course, be: «Forget it. There are no ghosts.» This statement can be proved false by one counterexample, such as by evidence from an eyewitness.

As with all concrete examples, the government should then answer three questions: 1. Is the counterexample true? (The witness might lie because the exorcist has promised him a commission.) 2. If it is true, is it relevant to the discussion? (The witness might tell the truth, but a psychiatrist might be better suited to solve the problem.) 3. If it is true and relevant, does it really contradict the general statement? (The culprit might be a troll or a tooth fairy, neither of which is a ghost.)

A very good argument can sometimes be refuted by shouting «Now you just state what you should actually prove.» The better the argument is, the easier is it to make the audience believe that the argument is not a real one, but just your opponent's claim in disguise. The best responseto this 22nd trick is probably to go one step back and give a second argument leading to the first one.

Finally, Trick 21 is to «Answer Bad Arguments With Bad Arguments.» For example, a manager in your company wants to split the sales department and the repair department into two independent companies. You oppose the split, and he gets personal: «As usual, you oppose all proposals just because you didn't have the idea yourself!»

Now you could explain that you're really against the split because an independent repair department has less time for the customers if it has to work cost-effectively, which makes for less satisfied customers, who will then buy somewhere else, and so on. It is, however, much faster and perhaps even more effective to answer with the same kind of argument: «You always make proposals that are profitable in the short term but disastrous in the long term because you know that you will have been promoted by then and someone else will be held responsible.»

This trick is related to the one I call «To Convince the Jury,» about which you will read in the next issue of this Newsletter.


Next Article (Part V)   Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. He's an epistemological anarchist, believing that it is bad for humanity if one world view claims to possess absolute truth and uses its superiority to oust other world views. He still became a scientist; after all, you must get behind somebody ... .