Taking People at Face Value

A lot of discussion is happening about whether the labels “anti-science” or “science denier” are accurate (or fair). Keith Kloor blogs about it regularly. A sprawling twitter conversation about denialism (and whether or not scientists are actually mostly Democrats or not and why) reminded me of why I don’t think it’s a helpful frame (never mind accurate). Simply put: we should take people at face value. Good argument requires a charitable outlook and most people making seemingly unscientific arguments believe they aren’t. Avoiding uncharitable assumptions makes for more fair and genuine arguments — and we’re far more likely to agree on something.

I recently came across a blog with a great term: steelmanning. The idea is the opposite of a strawman. Steelmanning is arguing against the strongest possible version you can imagine. Yes, this might mean you have to put yourself in their position (this might make your skin crawl at first). A follow-up post argued for greater charity in argument. The gist is that we should argue from a place that sees the best version of our opponent’s position and doesn’t assume awful things about them. A charitable steelman form of argument makes us better people: we aren’t denigrating anyone’s positions (or values) and we’re forced to make good arguments for our own side because we’re really seeing the other side.

I’ve long held the idea that I should take people at face value. I’ve realized from these blogs that part of what I mean by that phrase is that I should assume people are like me. I think I’m saying what I mean (no matter how confusing I speak) and I obviously don’t think it’s awful or evil! So I should likewise assume that people are earnest when they say something and no matter how awful it sounds to me, they probably don’t see it that way. I should try to understand what they mean. Sadly, it’s easy to fall into a trap of dismissing someone broadly, ignoring their argument or dismissing them because “they really just believe X and that’s awful”. In the end, it’s just exhausting and makes me angry. I need to step out of conversations when I realize I no longer have the ability to see someone charitably (or at least with good humor!)

How does this apply to labels like “anti-science” and “science denier”? Well, obviously, given the high value our society puts on science and evidence, claiming your opponent is “anti-science” is simply not charitable. If someone says science (and evidence) is important and that’s why they believe (or don’t believe) something, that’s great! Take them at their word. It’s no good to say that because they cherry-pick evidence that supports their position — or discount inconvenient evidence — that this means they “deny science”. People in general don’t realize it when they are processing information in an extremely skewed way. It’s going to be hard enough to help them see more evidence without implicitly or explicitly dismissing them as “anti-science”. Worse, by short-circuiting the argument with “just more anti-science crap”, we’re likely going to miss the real argument they are trying to make. For a lot of topics this is going to come down to values and not necessarily facts, even if the arguments being made seem to be about facts.

Argue against the best version of a position you disagree with. Don’t assume something they wouldn’t say of themselves. “Anti-science” is just one flavor of dismissing your opponent for reasons they would feel slighted for and make them not take you seriously. I’m probably quite guilty of painting “anti-science” on someone I’m arguing with (certainly in my head, though hopefully not explicitly too often). Hopefully writing a blog about the importance of charity in argument will remind me to do better. I probably need to carry around a button to remind me. :)