Friday, 15 February 2013

The Zen of Rhetoric: Avoid the Bias Card

    "According to a study in Respected Peer-Reviewed Journal, use of Type A widgets is effective in lowering the risk of Bad Stuff."
    "Respected Peer-Reviewed Journal? It's probably biased."

     Rhetoric is the art and skill of argumentation, analogous in some ways to martial arts in personal combat. Skill at rhetoric enables one to win arguments more often, and to defend one's positions more effectively, and we can think of winning an argument as being analogous to winning a fight (though I will argue later that this is the wrong way to look at it.) As with martial arts, there are some flashy moves that amateurs like to use, but in reality are almost never tactically sound. The accusation of bias is one of them.

     It's easy to see why this would be so tempting to use. It looks, at first glance, like a devastating offensive maneuver. With one simple claim, you seem to disarm your opponent completely, depriving her of all the evidence upon which her opinion rests. Bam! Game over! What choice does she have now, but to accept your position as correct?
     But in fact it's a clumsy and amateurish move that does more harm to your own credibility than that of the opponent. You cannot raise the issue of bias without calling your own objectivity into question. And when that happens, you're at a disadvantage, because you've already demonstrated an eagerness to discount unfavourable evidence the instant it looks like it might be unfavourable.
     Worse, you surrender any realistic hope of convincing your opponent when you play the bias card, because you undermine the very basis upon which convincing happens. If evidence and reason can be arbitrarily dismissed as "biased" because it supports one side or the other, then what reason is there for your opponent to accept any evidence or reason whatsoever? At best, the bias card is a scorched-earth defensive weapon; it allows you to avoid being convinced by your opponent, but that's all it does.

     However, I want to argue that it's even worse than that, because a true rhetorical warrior's objective is paradoxically not to win arguments, but to lose them, and by taking a step that makes it impossible to lose an argument, you make it impossible to succeed at rhetoric.
     The true rhetorical warrior is seeks not to convince his opponent, but rather, seeks to be convinced by her. True victory is to be persuaded, genuinely and honestly, to adopt a new opinion. It is no good conceding prematurely, pretending to be convinced by weak arguments or trickery. He must be sincerely convinced, satisfied by his opponent's logic and evidence, that he ought to adopt her claims. To that end, he presents his objections not in an attempt to refute her, but to help her understand the obstacles to convincing him in the hopes that she may overcome them.
     To be persuaded is a victory, because it enables one to improve one's understanding of the world by abandoning an understanding that is demonstrably flawed. "Winning" an argument, in contrast, profits one little, however gratifying it might be to one's vanity. The rhetorical warrior who understands this, then, would never try to play the bias card, because there is nothing to be gained by playing it.


  1. I love the last few paragraphs. The purpose of debate is to share information, to educate and learn. Too many people adopt an opinion and then claim it as absolute truth, even after the evidence is presented which proves them wrong, and they're missing the entire purpose of the thing.

  2. And so they lose, doubly. I'm not sure where we acquired this idea that never changing one's mind is a sign of virtuous resolve, and being amenable to argument is equated with being a wishy-washy flip-flopper, but it's absolutely poisonous.

    The curious thing about the path of the Rhetorical Warrior, though, is that by being genuinely willing to be convinced, one eventually attains a set of beliefs that are so well-developed and carefully reasoned that "losing" an argument becomes an increasingly rare triumph. This is why I called it the Zen of Rhetoric; one attains victory in argument only by eschewing victory as a goal.

  3. But surely an intelligent critical thinker ought to be conscious of the possibility that a particular information source IS biased. The hypothetical example you give (a statistically meaningful negative correlation between risk of harm and the use of a particular product, published in a reputable scientific journal) is actually an example of a situation where "the bias card" may be meaningful. Several pharmaceutical companies have been caught in the practice of sponsoring multiple studies with confidentiality clauses preventing the scientists from reporting the results without company approval.

    Do 20 studies.
    Pick the only one that shows a statistically meaningful positive result (within the error bars 19 times out of 20).
    Submit only that one to a journal, without mentioning the others.

    If the journal does not take active, meaningful steps, to make sure this was the only study done, and back those steps with legally enforceable sanctions requiring full disclosure, then I would say that journal is "probably biased."

    That's a meaningful argument, not a rhetorical trick.

  4. I'm not arguing that bias doesn't exist, or even that it shouldn't be addressed when necessary. I'm more talking about the rhetorical stance to take, in part because I've seen people aggressively and pre-emptively play the bias card so much recently, and in the self-defeating way I describe.

    Even when bias exists, though, I still take the position that it's more productive as a matter of rhetorical tactic to expose the bias rather than to attack it. Show, don't tell. To continue with the martial arts metaphor, someone who's biased is off-balance, and can easily be knocked down, but it defeats the purpose if you fall down with them. So it is better to make sure of one's own footing, to ensure that one can safely give a gentle nudge (if necessary) to bring down one's opponent, than to overcommit to knocking him over.

    Asking questions about who funded the study is perfectly legitimate. Asking about the methodology is to be encouraged. And if someone makes an Appeal to Authority argument, they've raised the issue of the authority's credibility, not you, so it's in play.