Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

(In)effective counter-arguments

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BBC3’s ‘Free Speech’ presenter Jake Humphreys. (C) BBC

Watching BBC3’s Free Speech programme tonight, I noticed an excellent example of a hollow debate in which two sides argue two completely different issues. Their positions reflect their cultural biases. The discussion was about a campaign asking the editor of the Sun newspaper to stop printing pictures of topless women (the infamous ‘Page 3’). The two sides can be (very roughly) summarised thus:

Position 1: The Sun is a mainstream newspaper and printing photographs of topless women perpetuates a culture in which women are measured against their physical attributes. Looking good naked is inconsequential and women should be valued for their intellectual achievements.

Position 2: Women are free to make money selling photographs of themselves in whatever state of undress they like. If some people do not like this, they can express their disapproval by simply not buying the newspaper.

These two positions are clearly in opposition, but one is not a counter-argument to the other. In the programme these two viewpoints were expressed repeatedly and yet no one directly addressed either argument.

Nothing is ever debated

Position 1 argues that the cultural message of printing these pictures in a mainstream newspaper is not one we want to encourage. It does not argue that erotic photographs are wrong, or women who pose for these photographs are exploited victims. To rebut this argument one must argue against the contention that these images foster gender-discriminatory attitudes that have no place in our society.

Position 2 takes a classic ‘freedom’ stance: women should be free to do what they like, as should the newspaper-buying public. To rebut this argument one must either rebut the case for this type of freedom (quite a difficult task) or rebut the contention that Page 3 is a problem because people take offence (easier). Position 1 nearly does it. It points out that Page 3 can be damaging to people who never even pick up a copy of the Sun, because it perpetuates attitudes towards women which contribute to continued gender inequality (highly visible in the gender pay gap).

By my analysis, one can rebut Position 2 by identifying the values behind the argument. Those who subscribe to Position 2 are likely to think their opponents are against personal freedom, whereas it is clear from Position 1 that that is not what their opponents are arguing. Those arguing from Position 1 should Position 2 and explain that, though nothing in the argument is incorrect, there are other reasons why we should campaign to stop the printing of images of nude women in a mainstream newspaper.

Climate science debates are climate policy debates in disguise

This may seem tangential to the main theme of this blog, but I see parallels here with ‘debates’ on climate change and climate policy. Many who argue irrationally against the basic physical science of climate change do so because of their cultural biases against climate policies. Those who value industry, consumer goods and wealth are unlikely to accept necessarily anti-consumptive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People take positions on one topic but in fact argue from deeply entrenched but irrelevant positions on another. In order to understand arguments one must understand the underlying cultural biases.

Understanding cultural bias both helps people to construct stronger arguments and helps people to rebut them. In other words, it makes debate more robust, and (hopefully) helps us converge on an appropriate course of action. And yet people seem completely unaware of the values systems underlying different arguments on climate, include their own. Dan Kahan makes this point eloquently in his paper as part of the Cultural Cognition Project.


Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

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