How to argue

August 25, 2009

debateSince the launch of this blog, I’ve been thinking more than usual about opinions and beliefs—how we develop them, how we articulate them and how we persuade others of them.  Having suffered through some abysmal PowerPoint presentations lately, I’ve also been thinking about the way in which I expect information, especially inthe form of persuasive arguments, to be communicated to me.

As uncreative as it may be, I strongly prefer that “the point” be stated very early on.  The earlier the better.  It gives me a structure within which to store everything else and I’ve discovered that I’m virtually incapable of retaining any evidence if I don’t know what it’s supposedly supporting.

But a soon to be published article in Psychological Science begs to differ.  Research shows that “the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way…the rest of the thought is interpreted.”  From this finding, folks over at Miller-McCune go on to argue that when presenting a persuasive argument to a disagreeing audience, one should present the evidence first and the conclusion last, so as to delay the “instantaneous neural response” as long as possible.

I have to say that I find this ridiculous.  It extends from an understanding of persuasive argumentation in which the evidence is neutral and only the conclusion is opinionated.  But most of the time, that separation is only an illusion; the selection of evidence and the way in which it is communicated are just as opinion-based as the conclusion itself.  Furthermore, a media-literate audience knows this.  And roundabout persuasion feels disingenuous.

I’m not arguing with the findings in the article, but reading the summary did remind me that I dearly wish we’d drop the notion of objective evidence presentations.



One comment

  1. This makes me think about so many things. I totally totally agree with you, Jonas. My brother had a professor in college who spent most of a semester trying to teach his students to write in the following manner: State your thesis *first* with basic supporting arguments. Then, address the most powerful counter arguments to your thesis. This has always seemed to me to be a pretty good way to go.

    But, with that said, I suppose I contradict this sometimes. I have noticed in my work that I often find myself trying to delay stating a conclusion or avoiding a specific set of terms because I know that my audience will instantaneously (within a half second apparently) trigger an unhelpful set of default negative associations in the listener and I will no longer be heard. I find that many of the challenges of communication in my work come down to trying to find unusual ways of stating things so as to gain a fresh hearing and avoid conversations that digress into predictable argumentative patterns, in which no progress can be made because the two sides are already entrenched in distant fox holes.

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