Sunday, April 11, 2004

OK, just what would it take?

For many years, and even to this day, I've been a vocal critic of the pseudo-scientific swill known as "creation science", or "scientific creationism", or whatever you want to call it. I've been in my share of heated arguments, and have even been in a fairly high-profile debate. But there's one occasion in particular that has shaped the way I react these days when I hear the nonsense coming from the right regarding war, or taxes, or the economy, or just about anything.

It was many years ago when I was having at it with a typically ill-informed supporter of creationism, who was taking the position that there just weren't "enough" transitional forms of fossils for him to be convinced that evolution had occurred. Now, I will give him credit that he didn't say there were no transitional forms -- that would have been an unimaginably asinine thing to say and would have annihiliated his credibility on the spot. So he was reduced to saying that there just weren't enough for his liking, while leaving the word "enough" sufficiently vague to get him off the hook.

In frustration, I snapped back, "OK, what would be enough? Gimme a number." I hadn't really mapped out a strategy here, it was just what came to mind at the moment.

My conversation partner seemed suddenly flustered, and stammered and stuttered; "What do you mean, a number? What kind of question is that?"

Whoa, I thought, I'm definitely on to something here. "Give me a number that would be 'enough' for you," I pressed. "You just said that there aren't 'enough' transitional forms to convince you of evolution. So, what would it take? What would be enough? Give me a number." I started to realize I was really on to something since there were, realistically, only two kinds of answers I could get, and I could work with both kinds.

If he gave me a reasonable figure, I could probably produce that many examples straight out of my copy of "The Encyclopedia of Vertebrate Evolution." If he came back with a ridiculous value, I could accuse him of setting an impossibly high standard, and trash his credibility that way as well. Either way, I pretty much had him, as he dodged, weaved and tap danced every way he could to avoid giving me a number. I never did get a value out of him, but I had a whole new line of attack.

The line of attack can be summarized by asking, "OK, what would it take to convince you you're wrong? Give me a number." And it's easy to see how quickly you can apply this strategy.

As I recall, on more than one occasion, various members of the Bush administration have either said outright or implied that the U.S. military casualty rate in Iraq is acceptable, and that therefore military action will continue. (I vaguely recall a Republican politician, a congressman perhaps, whose name escapes me at the moment, who opined once upon a time that the death rate for U.S. servicemen was only two per day, perfectly acceptable. He got roasted for his callousness.)

But the instant someone made this kind of statement, wouldn't it be terrific if some bold member of the media were to suddenly ask, "Um, excuse me, but if the current casualty rate is what you consider 'acceptable,' what value would you consider unacceptable? Give us a number, please."

I think we all know what kind of response we'd get. First, there'd be some definite stuttering and stammering, almost certainly followed by feigned outrage like, "I find that question in extremely poor taste. I find it hard to believe that someone could ask such a thing." Etc, etc, dodge, weave, tap dance ... you get the idea.

But the reporter should stand his ground, with something like, "I'm sorry, but there's absolutely nothing inappropriate or insulting about my question. You clearly stated/implied that losing two soldiers per day is within the bounds of acceptable loss. By doing so, you've obviously acknowledged that you have a value that you consider 'acceptable'. By extension, there must be a point at which that casualty rate becomes 'unacceptable'. All I want to know is what that value is."

Knowing full well that the speaker is going to do everything not to have to come up with a number, it might be necessary to help him along. "As a starting point, would you agree that 1,000 casualties per day would be unacceptable?" You'd have to think that that value is definitely not going to be tolerated since, at that rate, the entire U.S. deployment to Iraq would be dead in four months. So what can the speaker do?

If he admits that, of course, 1000 dead per day is unacceptable, the reporter can bring it down and try again. 750? What about 500? It's simple bracketing. And it does no good for the speaker to try to weasel out by claiming that there's no way to know. After all, he's the one who started out with the "acceptable" value of two so, obviously, he must have some criteria for making that decision. Don't let him off the hook.

On the other hand, if the speaker refuses to answer, imagine the possible headline: "Administration mum on acceptability of 1,000 deaths of U.S. servicemen per day." Not the headline you really want. In short, the poor speaker is pretty much screwed either way. And this debating tactic doesn't stop with death tolls.

Recently, the Bush administration has, in the face of pretty dismal economic forecasts, staunchly maintained that things are headed in the right direction, and are on the right track. Which inspires the obvious question for White House spokesweasel Scott McClellan, "Uh, excuse me, Scott, but given that you think the unemployment figures suggest that this administration is on the right track, what figures would you have to see to admit that you're on the wrong track?"

Again, there would certainly be some furious spin, and a refusal to entertain such an outrageous question. But the reporter must be firm, and refuse to back down, which would put someone like Scott McClellan in a very uncomfortable position.

If he finally produces a reasonable value, he's now put the entire administration's credibility at risk, since he has to realize that whatever he came up with might actually happen, and he'll be just roasted by the Press Corps.

On the other hand, if he comes up with a totally absurd value (say, a loss of a million jobs a month), he'll just make the administration look rigid and inflexible.
And if he refuses to produce a value at all, well, reporters can write their own headlines.

This was just a very long-winded way of proposing a slightly different strategy for debate. Don't defend your position, or attack the opponent's. Instead, ask a very simple question: "What would it take for you to change your mind? Give me a number."

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