Knowing when to shut up

I love to engage in debate and argumentation. When done in good faith, I don’t mind debating people who might believe in all sorts of things that I think are wrong or silly or dangerously stupid. The good faith bit is important to me and I always try to hold myself to the rhetorical standard that I hold others. Sometimes I fail and yes, Bush and Palin can bring out all sorts of ad hominem attacks from me, and often my logic can be clouded by empathy when faced with real world pain or a sometimes self-righteous passion for justice when faced with so much suffering and violence and injustice in the world.

I tend to be good with words and logic and ideas so even when I don’t have a lot of factual basis for my arguments, I can often mount a pretty damn convincing argument for my point of view. Because of this, I will often argue a point without a strong basis in facts or information.

I’m going to try to know when to shut up.

My new rule for myself (and one I’m sure I’ll break over time, but the value is in the effort and over time effort will become practice will become habit) is this: stop pretending I know things I don’t know.

Seems simple doesn’t it? The hard part is distinguishing between what I believe and what I know. The truth of the matter is I, along with most everyone, don’t know very much. I do know that. Of course I get through the day based on any number of facts, but most of what I use to understand the world is based on inferences and belief. I have no evidence that most people are decent, but I tend to move through the world with that assumption. I, personally, have no evidence that Cheney isn’t right and that torture is a find and dandy thing to help protect this country. I believe he is wrong in this, just as I believe that flu vaccinations are a good thing. In order for me to enter a meaningful conversations about these and so many other topics, I have to first admit that my argument is based on a belief that is based on logic, or research, or my trust in the experience and knowledge of specific other people. I then need to shut up and really listen to the other persons argument.

And by listen, I don’t mean wait for them to stop talking to I can make my next point, I mean, listen to their argument and their facts. I mean, take the time to understand their logic (or lack thereof), to try to separate belief from evidence. Then ask them questions, try to get them to clarify their logic or explain the veracity of their sources.

I am not suggesting that you can’t defend your beliefs or have a meaningful conversation about topics even when you don’t have research or direct experience at your disposal. I am suggesting that we would all be better off if we started by acknowledging the terms and limits of our knowledge and recognizing the difference between evidence, inference, logic, facts, and belief.

6 thoughts on “Knowing when to shut up

  1. I would love to discuss vaccines with you so you can practice your new plan. I am NOT anti-vaccine, but I do have a child with autism and can articulate the anti-vaccine argument fairly well.

  2. Hey John, I’m sorry to hear about your child’s diagnosis and wish you and your family all the best. Have you spent any time over at the website They have a number of very qualified people writing about these issues with intellectual rigor and a dedication to science. I think any fruitful discussion between ourselves would be best served by perhaps starting with some of the essays there or at, particularly this essay

    Hope you and your family had a great Thanksgiving!

  3. Whatever you do, don’t be sorry. Evan is the absolute light of my life, and of course perfect. 🙂 Good links and good reads. I like to be well informed. The one missing piece of compelling evidence from the science side is that parents are not all in on their side. As a fervent education advocate ( <— my blog) I know the power and truth that parents can bring. It is easy to call Jenny McCarthy a quack (she may be) dismissively to try and prove a point, but that does not make the scientist right. The anecdotal evidence is substantial, if not peer reviewed….

    Interesting links: (page 3 bottom)

    AND FROM THIS link: (SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE; TABLE OF CONTENTS. (a) SHORT TITLE.—This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Homeland Security Act of 2002’’.)

    comes this key code:

    SEC. 1714. CLARIFICATION OF DEFINITION OF MANUFACTURER. Section 2133(3) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300aa–33(3)) is amended— (1) in the first sentence, by striking ‘‘under its label any vaccine set forth in the Vaccine Injury Table’’ and inserting ‘‘any vaccine set forth in the Vaccine Injury table, including any component or ingredient of any such vaccine’’; and (2) in the second sentence, by inserting ‘‘including any component or ingredient of any such vaccine’’ before the period.


    SEC. 1716. CLARIFICATION OF DEFINITION OF VACCINE. Section 2133 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300aa– 33) is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘‘(7) The term ‘vaccine’ means any preparation or suspension, including but not limited to a preparation or suspension containing an attenuated or inactive microorganism or subunit thereof or toxin, developed or administered to produce or enhance the body’s immune response to a disease or diseases and includes all components and ingredients listed in the vaccines’s product license application and product label.’’. SEC. 1717. EFFECTIVE DATE. The amendments made by sections 1714, 1715, and 1716 shall apply to all actions or proceedings pending on or after the date of enactment of this Act, unless a court of competent jurisdiction has entered judgment (regardless of whether the time for appeal has expired) in such action or proceeding disposing of the entire action or proceeding.

    Science has many many wonderful answers as I, and my son are H1N1 inoculated as I wrote this…and he is 100% up to date….but just because I vaccinate, does not make those who object crazy…..

  4. I haven’t gone through these links, so don’t have much to say until I do . . . however, I do think that it is safe to say that while objecting to vaccinations doesn’t make one crazy, the movement that has grown up around this issue is rife with people who are irresponsible and who use misinformation and misunderstood information without bothering to check their sources or look at any evidence that doesn’t fit in with their belief system and who mistake correlation for causation.

    Thanks for the links and I hope to get to them later this week.

  5. Have you read some of the stuff promoted by

    Comparing something like to any of the articles on and it’s like comparing the scribbles of a child to a trained artist – even if some of the shapes might vaguely relate to reality, the noise and sheer chaos makes their entire argument suspect. Not to mention the fact that they seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. As Tim Minchin says in his humorous 9 minute beat poem, “science adjusts its views based on what’s observed, faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be observed.” does not seem like a credible source for anything having to do with science, much less vaccination.

  6. Damn, but is like an intellectual car accident. They call Richard Dawkins the “Devil’s Vicar” and promote creationism.

    No credibility whatsoever.

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