Thursday, January 27, 2005

The proper question to ask is, "What would it take?"

By way of a long-winded and circuitous path to get to the point, let me tell y'all a story. Many years ago, when I made it a hobby of crushing scientific creationists and their arguments, I had just finished giving a public evening presentation at a local university and, not surprisingly, as I was chatting with a few stragglers after it was over, there was one annoyingly insistent young man who took umbrage with my entire presentation.

He was adamant that there was no way he was going to accept biological evolution -- it contradicted his interpretation of the Bible, how could random chance have produced such marvelous life forms, etc, etc. Every argument I'd heard a hundred times before and, since he didn't seem in a listening mood, I mostly tuned him out. Until he said, "And besides, evolution says there should be all these transitional forms. Well, there aren't, are there? I mean, there just aren't enough of them to prove evolution, are there?" (Emphasis added.)

At that point, I had pretty much had enough of this, so I snapped back, "Fine. Then what would be enough for you?" Blank stare. Puzzled look coming over face. "Uh ... what do you mean?", he asked. "What would be 'enough' to make you happy?" I asked again. He still looked a bit adrift, and it suddenly struck me that I was onto something here.

"Pay attention," I said, in a suitably condescending tone of voice. "You just said that you didn't accept evolution because there weren't 'enough' transitional forms. So, rather than waste my time presenting one after another to you, which I can certainly do until they kick us out of here, I want you to define what would be 'enough'. I want a number."

At this point, he realized he was being put on the spot to produce, so he quickly tried to weasel his way out by saying something like, "Well, that's not fair. I don't know what a reasonable number would be."

"Well, you damn well should," I replied. "You're the one who used the phrase 'not enough', which clearly suggests that you have some value in mind that constitutes the boundary between enough and not enough. You used that phrase -- I didn't. So let's have it. I want a number. What would be 'enough' for you to accept biological evolution? Come on. Let's go. I want a number and I want it now."

Now, there were a couple options for my young, pitifully confused little creationist. If he came up with a reasonable value -- even up to, say, 500 -- I could have produced those out of some of the reference books I had at the time, and he would have been trapped by his own words. On the other hand, if he came back with a ridiculously large value, I could have accused him of setting impossibly high standards, and asked him to be just as rigorous with his evidence for creation science. And if he said that there was no number that would be sufficient, I would have just blown him off by saying that he just admitted he had a closed mind and it was a waste of time discussing it with him. In other words, he was pretty much damned no matter which way he turned.

In any event, the important point was that, rather than stand there wasting oxygen producing one transitional form after another, to which he could simply have kept saying that it wasn't enough, I demanded that he give me a number. In essence, I wanted a target that he wasn't going to keep moving on me. I wanted a clear idea of my goal so I'd know when I got there, and when I could claim victory. In short, I reduced the entire argument to asking a simple question, "What's enough? What will it take to convince you?"

What will it take?

That is an amazingly powerful question, since it shifts the basis for the discussion onto the other person. No more wasting hours presenting argument after argument to support your position, only to have your opponent constantly move the goalposts on you and claim that you still haven't presented a convincing case. Demand the requirements up front, and make sure your opponent understands you're going to hold him to them. You want examples? No problem.

Consider White House spokesweasel Scott McClellan, who is an absolute master at ignoring reality and sticking to the script. Most people remember when, even in the face of miserable job creation numbers, he kept saying that "We're happy with the numbers and we feel we're on the right track." Regardless of how poor those numbers were, no reporter could shake him from that message because no reporter had the sense to ask the right question.

But what if someone had had the temerity to ask, "Scott, you keep saying that these numbers prove that this administration is on the right track. What numbers would force you to admit that you were on the wrong track?" Now, almost certainly, McClellan would try to weasel out of the question. I suspect he'd try his standard dodge of "Well, that's a hypothetical question, and I make it a point not to answer hypothetical questions."

But it's not a hypothetical question at all. As with my adorable, clueless creationist friend, if McClellan describes something as being on the "right track," the burden of defining what that means is his, and no one else's. If he can't identify the dividing line, then his statement is utterly worthless. And our intrepid reporter friend should sink her teeth in and demand an answer.

Want another example? One of my favourites involves Republican George Nethercutt, who got himself into major trouble back in 2003, as you can read here:

... At issue is a story about Nethercutt's Oct. 13 town hall meeting in Seattle, held after he had visited Iraq with a congressional delegation.

Nethercutt showed a videotape from the trip, then said the story of U.S. reconstruction in Iraq is not being told fully by the news media. On that much, the congressman and the newspaper story agree.

Near the start of its story, the P-I said:

"The story of what we've done in the postwar period is remarkable," Nethercutt, R-Wash., told an audience of about 65 at a noon meeting at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

"It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day."

Now, there is considerable controversy about whether or not Nethercutt was quoted fairly and in proper context, but there is no dispute that he said the words highlighted above. The obvious implication in those words is that two soldiers a day are an acceptable loss. And you can see where I'm going with this; if two a day is acceptable, wouldn't it have been amusing for a journalist to ask Nethercutt how many troops would have to die for it to be unacceptable? Almost certainly, there would have been much sputtering and outrage, and perhaps a "How dare you ask such an offensive question?" But the question itself is perfectly fair, and most assuredly would deserve an answer.

As another example, consider the nauseating rubbish coming out of the White House these days describing the increasing chaos and death rate in Iraq as being on the right path, or whatever idiotic phrase they're using these days. So wouldn't it be useful if someone worked up the nerve to ask, "Um ... just how bad would things have to get for this administration to admit that this whole invasion thing is on the wrong path?" Yup, perfectly fair question. Just don't expect an answer.

Finally, remember a couple years back, when the entire neocon community was braying about how it was absolutely essential to attack Iraq since, well, as everyone knows, they were behind the attacks of 9/11 and, besides, they had all these nasty WMDs that we had to take care of. And after the invasion was well underway, wouldn't it have been fun to ask, ever so politely, "Just out of curiosity, somewhere down the road, what would it take for you to accept that this invasion was a mistake?"

I'll bet it wouldn't have been hard, back then, to get an admission that, well, if Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 and he doesn't have any WMDs, yeah, that would be kind of embarrassing. Naturally, you won't hear any such admission these days. But it sure would have been nice to have something like that on the record, don't you think?

"What will it take?" It's amazing how much information you can get if you ask that question properly. "What will it take to convince you that the invasion of Iraq was illegal? What will it take for you to accept that American troops tortured Iraqis? What evidence will I have to produce to make you admit that the United States violated the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of prisoners?"

What will it take? I have every right to ask that question, and it's your responsibility to have a meaningful answer when I do.

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