Saturday, December 22, 2007

How To Argue....Please Read The Last Paragraph First

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch asks the question "Does Al Gore Know What He's Talking About?"

Click on the link above, read the whole thing, and try to get back to me.

I recently received an email from someone attacking a lengthy scholarly article. The article and its conclusion were controversial. The sender of the email encouraged everyone to read the conclusion first, then read the rest of the article. I repeat, the sender suggested reading the conclusion first.

My assumption is that no one would read the virtually bulletproof argument presented in the paper if they were to read the controversial conclusion first. It was a disagreeable conclusion. I also assume that the sender didn't genuinely want anyone to evaluate the lengthy argument presented in the academic paper; the goal was to point out the various heresies in the conclusion without reference to the preceding argument.

It made me totally nuts.

Friends of mine who received the same email vigorously defended the author/scholar who wrote the controversial paper. They defended the argument made in the article, and defended it well.

(Awwww....I'm lying....they really didn't defend the piece. They defended the author's right to publish his opinions, and they defended their right to like the author and his books. The points made in that article were too radioactive to be openly and honestly discussed by people with reputations to worry about. So I'll get to it one day....)

But no one that I know pointed out the error of encouraging people to read the conclusion without reading the argument first. Especially when the argument is the point.

What does this have to do with former New York City mayor Ed Koch's piece that asks "Does Al Gore Know What He's Talking About?" Well, for starters, my original intent was to post only the last two paragraphs of Koch's argument on this site. Then I would pat myself and Ed Koch on our backs and compliment both of us for sharing the same opinion on Al Gore, i.e. that he's a doofus.

But that does a disservice to Al Gore by enlisting an "authority" argument from Ed Koch, which would encourage people to read only the conclusion from the "authority".

The Argument From Authority is a weak one, whether the Authority in question is Ed Koch, The Pope, Oprah Winfrey, 9 out of 10 Dentists who chew sugarless gum, or the Old Testament Prophet Habbakuk. What is the evidence that Ed, Pope, Oprah or Habbakuk bring to the argument? That's what matters.

Oprah likes Obama, and she's famous. She's an authority on a lot of things. But can she make an argument that Obama is the best choice for President of The United States? And does that argument hold up well? She's probably tried to make the case for Obama somewhere, but I haven't run across it yet. All I find are statements that Oprah has endorsed Obama.

Posting Ed Koch's closing paragraphs also does a slight disservice to Ed Koch, doesn't it? His intent was to provide us with a math problem, where this fact plus this statistic, subtracted from this statement and multiplied by this piece of history, equals Koch's-opinion-on-whether-Gore-knows-what- he's-talking-about. But many of us in the Blogosphere like to post only the factoids we agree with. Or we grab one disagreeable paragraph, do a thorough Fisking, and move on to the next heresy.

I'm going to try to avoid that from now on. Any fiskings will be complete, rather than selecting the most delicious offerings that the buffet of 2008 offers to me.

And you still haven't read the beautiful hatchet job that Ed Koch did on Al Gore, have you?


subadei said...

Heh. Very well written. I'd be curious to know what that scholarly article was.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

It was something from the Westar Institute, home of "The Jesus Seminar". They are primarily into New Testament textual criticism, etc. The article in question was by Marcus Borg.

It's kind of long and parts of it are technical, so you might want to read the last paragraph first.
Just joking....