Monday, January 23, 2017

Two Stories to Every Side

An ancient sculpture believed to
represent Protagoras the Sophist
The claim that “there are two sides to every story” dates back over two millennia, to ancient Greece. It is generally attributed to Protagoras the Sophist, who taught legal argument in ancient Athens. We cannot know this, however, since little of Protagoras’ own works have survived; he’s best known for the Platonic dialog in which Socrates mocks him for that claim. Socrates asserts this claim means Protagoras thinks truth doesn’t exist, and philosophy is futile.

That isn’t what Protagoras means, however. Like all Sophists, Protagoras’ chief interest wasn’t in knowing objective reality, but in staging arguments in court. Ancient Athenian democracy was far more litigious than today’s supposedly sue-happy society. Sophists taught citizens, who were expected to represent themselves, how to take facts which actually exist, and find the interpretive framework that most completely explains them. In other words, he taught citizens to argue from evidence, without making anything up.

This remains what we do today, in multiple forms of argument. In a murder trial, the defense may formulate claims that the defendant didn’t kill the victim, or that the prosecution’s case doesn’t hold water. If the defense claims the murder just didn’t happen, and the victim remains alive and productive, they’ve essentially surrendered all claims to seriousness. Serious argument starts with the position that reality exists. Without that, no other meaningful claims are possible.

Likewise, scientists may argue about, say, the universe’s background radiation, or Global Warming. These arguments start by acknowledging that the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station have observed background radiation in manners consistent with mathematical predictions, or that globally, the ten hottest years on record have all happened since 1998. These facts exist. Anybody who crosses their arms, stomps their feet, and says reality didn’t happen that way, loses the right to participate.

This should be uncontroversial. We all have eyes and fingers through which we recognize the world. Anybody who studies psychology knows that the evidence of our senses isn’t always reliable, but when a robust consensus of skilled professionals, working within their areas of expertise, produce thoroughgoing evidence that something exists, that summers really are measurably warmer than they were when our parents were this age, or that universal background radiation exists, we have to trust.

Things aren’t always so simple, certainly. A person can only get murdered once. Prosecuting attorneys cannot bring claims that this murder is consistent with other murders enough to be considered a murder (except when linking multiple deaths to one serial killer, which is far less common than TV would imply). In that case, we use whatever evidence we have, to create a persuasive story. And our opponents will use matching evidence to create their counternarrative.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, during
his first official press conference this past Saturday
If police have security camera footage of me entering the victim’s workplace one hour before co-workers found the body, I may have reasonable explanations for this. Perhaps I owed the victim money, and showed up to pay. Perhaps I simply intended to do business, and my proximity was coincidental. And I could completely render the evidence innocuous by saying, hey, I work there too. Of course I showed up; I had a shift that day.

I cannot, however, say the evidence doesn’t exist. If I say there’s no such photo after you’ve already seen it, you’ll know I’m lying, and everything I say becomes questionable. We’ve all had the schadenfreude, while watching TV news or documentaries, of seeing a person confronted with evidence contradicting everything they’ve just said, watching the mental hamster wheel turning as they try to invent, on the spot, reasons to distrust the evidence of your senses.

If I say something doesn’t exist, and you have evidence demonstrating it does, that’s not another side to the story. That’s not merely a case of “everyone’s entitled to their opinions.” And it’s certainly not “alternative facts.” If you have something concrete to demonstrate that my facts don’t support the explanation I’ve constructed, you must say something. You cannot simply say it ain’t so, you must demonstrate this. Whoever brings evidence, simply put, gets believed.

I confess a certain antipathy toward “two sides to every story,” even though I believe it’s true. When people say this, they almost never mean they have persuasive counterevidence that dismantles my argument. They preponderantly muster this bromide to keep a controversy alive after all evidence has submarined it. And that’s arguing in bad faith. If we cannot first agree that reality exists, we have nothing more to say. That’s not counterevidence, it’s a lie.

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